Walkers on the Quinnipiac Trail behind Old Coach Highway in Hamden will soon notice a new house going up a near the trail. They can rest assured that Hamden’s Inland Wetlands Commission (IWC) does not think it will pose a threat to nearby Shepard Brook.
John Nolan appeared before the IWC last week to win approval to build the house for his son on his property, while a few of his neighbors looked on.
Nolan lives on the same property that his grandfather lived on. His son, who grew up in Hamden, will soon move back from Washington into a brand-new house on the property that his great grandfather owned.
Nolan’s neighbors raised concerns about the effect the construction could have on Shepard Brook and the Quinnipiac Trail alongside it.
Nolan had to come to the IWC because the house he plans to build will sit within 200 feet of a wetland. According to Hamden’s inland wetlands regulations, any building or landscaping activity that happens between 100 and 200 feet of a wetland or watercourse, known as the “upland review area,” must pass the IWC. No building or landscaping activity may take place within 100 feet of a wetland, known as the non-disturbance buffer area.
The application was accepted unanimously, though the commission tacked on 11 conditions of approval to make sure the work would not affect the wetland.
The owner and contractor must install sediment and erosion controls, install medallions along the boundaries of the 100-foot non-disturbance boundary line, make sure no activity takes place within the non-disturbance buffer area, include the wetland and the buffer area on all maps, and come back to the commission if anything changes, among other conditions.
Neighbors Have Concerns
In January, Dianne Crocker, who lives on the adjacent plot, noticed that trees along the Quinnipiac Trail had markers on them that said “driveway,” “PL” for property line, and “delineated wetland.”
Shortly thereafter, she received a letter from Nolan’s contractor notifying her and her husband, because they are abutting landowners, that the construction plans would be brought to the IWC meeting on Feb. 6.
She and a few neighbors showed up to the Feb. 6 meeting, but were not allowed to speak because no public hearing was scheduled. The commission reviewed the application and tabled it so that members could do a site walk to see the property in person.
“Neighbors were understandably concerned,” Crocker wrote to the Independent, “and the only way we could have a voice in the process was to secure 25 signatures from town residents to request the public hearing.”
She gathered the 25 signatures, and a public hearing was added to Wednesday’s meeting. She and a few of her neighbors showed up to observe, though she was the only one who spoke.
Crocker said she frequents the Quinnipiac trail and would hate to see it and Shepard Brook degraded. The brook is a major part of the experience of the trail, she said, adding that “inland wetlands are our best defense against flooding.”
Crocker’s husband, Pete Swan, also attended the meeting. “It’s a forested wetlands area, and I just wanted to make sure the proper process was followed so the forest is not affected,” he said.
Rhoda Saltz, another neighbor, said that “we want to preserve the natural integrity back there.”
In her comments to the commission, Crocker said she and her neighbors wanted “a greater understanding of how the potential wetlands impacts are being considered during this process.”
She brought up three areas of concern to the commission, all three posed more as questions than as comments. First, she wanted to know if other siting options had been considered for the house. As she explained to the Independent, the site that the applicant had chosen was in a corner of the property, though parcel was large enough to accommodate other sites that would have placed the house further from the trail and the brook.
Next, she asked about plans for the footprint of the house and the driveway. She said that the plans had the driveway going to the side of the house, but that there had been discussions about the driveway going up to the front instead, which would place it further from the non-disturbance area. She asked if the plans had been changed to reflect that discussion.
Once she had finished, Nolan answered that yes, he plans to place the driveway in front of the house rather than to the side.
Finally, Crocker addressed the brook and the trail. “This application would result in a permanent change to the setting of the trail,” she said. “It’s the difference between walking by a creek through the woods and walking through someone’s backyard.”
She said that she was heartened to hear that the applicant cares about the woods and will continue to allow access to the trail, but that in end, “properties change hands.” The next owners, she said, might not have the same care for the trail, woods, wetlands, and might not allow people to use the trail on their property. She urged the commission to consider placing a conservation easement on the property.
As Swan later explained, the properties along Old Coach through which the trail runs have no easements regarding trail use, and it is up to the owners whether or not to open up their property to walkers.
The commissioners listened to Crocker’s concerns and answered her questions when they could. But as Commission Chair Joan Lakin explained after the meeting, the IWC has a limited scope. Some of the expressed concerns went beyond its jurisdiction.
“We don’t design a piece of property. We vote on what the applicant brings to us,” she said. The commission has no ability to tell an applicant where on a piece of property to place a house. Thus the question about alternative placements was out of the purview of the commission, which has power only to approve, approve with conditions, or deny an application. If the commission had thought that the placement of the applicant’s proposed house was a problem, it could have denied the application, but it has no power to tell an applicant where to site construction.
In addition, said Lakin, the commission can only react to the evidence that is brought to it. Though it is composed of wetlands experts, she said, it also depends on the testimony of experts that applicants bring in to help them with applications. When people come to speak against an application, it’s difficult for the commission to incorporate those alternative positions into the decision without evidence brought by an expert.
Vice Chair Kirk Shadle said Nolan had followed all of the commission’s guidelines, so there was no reason to deny the application.
After the meeting, Crocker said that she was disappointed. She said that she worries that the approval could set a precedent for future construction along the trail.
Yet she also said that she was heartened by the process. “I’m a big fan of having citizens having a voice,” she said. “And it was gratifying to see the commission include conditions in their approval that took my comments into account, like permanent markers to protect the brook from encroachment.”