WESTPORT— Speculation that the proposed development at 500 Main St. may be fraught with environmental concerns was raised discreetly by residents at a meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission on Dec. 21.

“I have had a sore throat for a number of months, my wife as well. I noticed that some of the trees and bushes on our property are dying or near death,” said Paul Conti, an opponent of the proposal for five two-family dwellings and two one-family dwellings at the intersection of Routes 57 and 136.

“Last summer from mid-August to mid-November it was like a dust bowl,” said the resident of 17 Weston Road, which abuts property that formerly housed Daybreak Nursery and, before that, a car repair shop.

At the direction of the town Blight Prevention Board in August 2017, the project’s developer, Peter Greenberg of Able Construction, started to clean up the property at 500 Main St., which had been left desolate in 2013 after Daybreak Nursery declared bankruptcy. Steve Smith, the town’s building official, said no permits were necessary to shift the soil.

Conti said when the soil was shifted around, his house and deck was completely covered with silt and residue. The situation was frightening, he explained, because the soil sifting was done before the developer commissioned an environmental analysis of the soil, which Conti feared contained pollutants due to the property’s historical use.

The primary concern residents raised about the proposed development at the Dec. 21 Planning and Zoning meeting regarded the traffic impact and public safety risk to seniors, for whom the units would be reserved, walking near the busy intersection. But several other residents echoed Conti’s environmental concerns, albeit quietly and somewhat offhandedly.

“This is rather unique,” P&Z Commissioner Chip Stephens said regarding the environmental concerns. “These neighbors have been possibly poisoned.”

Commissioner Al Gratrix called for the town’s Conservation Department to weigh in on the environmental impact of the proposed development, which it did in a Jan. 8 memo to the commission.

As explained in the memo on the “potential impact of this development to groundwater quality,” the proposed development resides in an “Aquifer Protection Overlay Zone,” meaning that Aquarion, Westport’s water company, may be impacted by the construction.

“When you’ve got an aquifer, you have very permeable soil,” Conservation Analyst Lynne Krynicki, who helped Conservation Director Alicia Mozian write the memo, explained to Westport News. “There’s a well Aquarion put in, and the demand for water comes from the well and the groundwater comes from that aquifer area and feeds into the well.”

The high permeability of the soil at 500 Main St., due to its proximity to an aquifer, may cause the groundwater to become contaminated, Mozian wrote in the memo.

The Westport Weston Health District, which oversees residential water quality, is not nearly as concerned as Mozian, something they expressed in an earlier memo to P&Z.

The proposed development “meets Connecticut Public Health Code requirements” and is not expected to negatively impact the town’s groundwater quality, Health Director Mark Cooper said.

“We also realize you are in possession of conflicting reports from us and the Health District,” Mozian wrote to P&Z, referencing Cooper’s earlier memo. “Does the plan meet the current health code? Yes, it does. Does the plan protect long-term groundwater and aquifer impact? We think not because of the proposed density and this particular soil type’s inability to effectively remove contaminants.”

Despite their expressed opinion, the Conservation Department holds no jurisdiction over residential housing under the

Aquifer Protection Area Regulations.

“In the end, this is a judgment call by you,” Mozian wrote at the end of her memo to P&Z.

Bonnie Dubson, a resident of 10 Daybreak Lane, has been one of the lead activists opposing the development and said she brought up worries about the project’s impact on the surrounding water quality in November.

The more research she did, “the more it became a pressing issue for me,” Dubson told Westport News.

Dubson discovered Able Construction did not complete one of the mandated steps for project approval per state statute: notifying the water company, Aquarion, and the state commissioner of public health, within seven days of submitting the application.

Able Construction submitted its original application for the project Sept. 14, 2017, but never notified Aquarion, which Dubson realized and then told the Planning and Zoning Department. In turn, the department required Able Construction to withdraw and resubmit its application so it could notify Aquarion within the specified time frame, which the developer did on Jan. 18.

“They put me in the position of a whistleblower. They’ve been reviewing this application since November and nobody noticed but me,” Dubson said.

Pam Kopack, resident of 11 Daybreak Lane, said she doesn’t think the developer is a bad guy but raised concerns about the developer’s motives for not originally notifying Aquarion.

“If you don’t notify them, what are they hiding? It’s just suspect to me,” Kopack told Westport News. “The developer totally bypassed the process. Maybe (the soil’s) fine, maybe it’s not, but we don’t know because he took the dirt away.”

The developer’s lawyer, Mel Barr of Barr Associates, who will speak on behalf of Able Construction when it comes up for discussion at the next P&Z meeting on Feb. 8, declined to comment on the application.

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