By Mara Brooks, Editor

Lewack calls residents’ environmental concerns “uninformed”

The Planning Commission (PC) has conditionally approved Charlotte Family Health Center’s controversial application for a mixed-use facility at 251 Ferry Road.

In its July 29 decision and order, the PC outlined several conditions applicant Emerald Green Properties is required to meet, including reducing the parking lot from 27 to 24 spaces, relocating a dumpster, and placing a screening fence along the property’s western boundary.

Town Planner Larry Lewack said the conditions are based on a combination of public feedback and strict application of land use regulations.

“We did take all the public feedback into consideration,” Lewack said. “We also looked very carefully at the wetlands information and asked for more detailed reports from the applicant.”

Some residents expressed concerns that the proposed development would damage existing wetlands and introduce toxic runoff from cars parked in the health center parking lot. Former Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) member Ronda Moore, whose property adjoins the proposed site, helped circulate a petition seeking to halt the project. Moore resigned from the ZBA last month.

Lewack said environmental concerns regarding the wetlands are largely unfounded and “uninformed”.

“One of the things we did pretty early was we pulled up information for the wetlands and soil conditions in the area of this project site,” Lewack said. “The data showed pretty clearly that all the significant wetlands are much further to the south than the two acres that border Ferry Road. So, from our perspective, there weren’t any important or Class 1 wetlands anywhere near where the health center was going to build.”

Lewack said independent consultant Dorie Barton, who was hired by the health center, and the state’s wetlands specialist, came to the same conclusion: the site is safe to build on.

“[Barton] did a ground assessment to see if there was any clue that there could be wetlands of concern close to Ferry Road,” Lewack said. “That assessment was a key piece of information when we looked at the wetland issues, as well as the report prepared by the state wetlands specialist from the Agency of Natural Resources.”

Barton found, and the state agreed, that some areas on the site met the criteria for Class 2 wetlands, “but they were very low-quality wetlands; places where they had been built on and developed before,” Lewack said. “It was pretty clear we were not looking at virgin wetlands but a previous developed site that had very low wetland values.”

Lewack said the depth of information provided by Barton and the state represented “a much higher level of expertise” than the town typically has access to, and they saw no need to dig any deeper.

“We felt we could trust that information, it came from a higher level of expertise and data that what we alone as the town could muster,” he said.

The conditions imposed by the PC were an attempt to balance “a strict application of the rules with whatever is being proposed by the applicant and what we feel is reasonable,” Lewack said.

Finding that sweet spot was not always easy, Lewack said. For example, on the topic of wetlands encroachment, the PC found land use regulations were often less than clear.

“In one place the regulations say no building of any kind on wetland buffers, but in another place it says if you have a detailed assessment by an independent expert, and the state issues a permit allowing the encroachment, the planning commission can go along with that,” Lewack said.

The town opted for the second approach, Lewack said, because the applicants’ plan was “honestly presented” and “shows the parking lot behind the building encroached into the wetland buffer.”

In keeping with a “stricter application” of the rules, the PC also required the health center to remove the parking spaces “above the minimum required in the land use regulations,” Lewack said. “It requires the applicant to change the site plan to have a lower impact project.”

Other conditions were added as a result of neighbors’ concerns. Adjoining property owners Jeanne and Rene Kaczka-Valliere publicly opposed the project, citing concerns of noise and light pollution. In an interview with The News, the couple promised to appeal the project in environmental court if their concerns were not adequately addressed.

“We felt the neighbors to the west were clearly going to bear the brunt of the impact from the long line of parking and dumpster next to their boundaries,” Lewack said. “So, we insisted on a few things, including that the applicants relocate the dumpsters to the east of the main parking area in back.”

Another condition requires applicants to replace the proposed lattice screening with solid fencing.

“Lattice is not effective screening from headlights,” Lewack said. “So, we required a five-foot-high privacy fence so the headlights of passenger vehicles pulling in would not shine onto the neighbor’s property.”

Eliminating parking spaces also reduces light pollution along the western boundary, Lewack said.

“By terminating that long row of parking spaces, the amount of lighting along that boundary is reduced,” he said. “Active areas of the parking lot will be lit, but if you’re truncating that parking area, you don’t need lighting along that western boundary.”

Lewack conceded that despite study findings and efforts to reduce the project’s impact, some residents may still oppose the health center on environmental grounds.

“The question is not can you completely eliminate the impact, but are you treating it effectively and responsibly?” Lewack said. “And I think the solution the applicants presented after the PC pushed them to come up with a plan was an appropriate compromise.”

Interested parties who oppose the Charlotte Health Center development have 30 days to appeal the project in environmental court. Environmental surveys and other documents related to the project can be found on the Charlotte Health Center project page on the town website.