Nature center proposed for South Park site in Easton

Land-Use Director John Hayes shows a map of the South Park property to P&Z members at the May 23 meeting. — Brad Durrell photo

Land-Use Director John Hayes shows a map of the South Park property to P&Z members at the May 23 meeting. — Brad Durrell photo

How to best protect the pristine character of the Mill River was debated during a recent Planning and Zoning meeting when the town-owned, 29.6-acre South Park property was discussed.

John Hayes, town land-use director, has added background information on the river — known as a premier place to fish for brook trout — to his draft report on whether the parcel might be suitable for a possible senior housing complex.

Protecting the river “would be essential to any development,” said Hayes, whose draft suggests creating an 11-acre open space buffer along the Mill River. Development should be limited to 18 acres away from the waterway because allowing development closer to the river would “very likely have an adverse impact,” Hayes told the P&Z at the May 23 meeting.

P&Z Chairman Robert Maquat emphasized the same point. “Whatever goes there, the river will be protected,” he said, noting development has taken place right next to the Mill River — which flows through Fairfield into Long Island Sound — in other locations.

Easton resident James Prosek, a well-known author, artist and environmental activist who has written extensively on fishing, opposes developing the South Park property because he said it would negatively impact the trout.

“That river has one of the  most pristine populations of wild brook trout in one state,” Prosek told the P&Z, arguing a multiple-unit complex so close by the Mill River would harm the fish’s ability to reproduce.

“This is an incredible resource,” said Prosek, who has worked with former Easton resident Laura Modlin to form a new organization, the Mill River Heritage Project, to try to  protect the river. They hope to create a nature center on the South Park property, where fishermen could park.

While he likes the idea of building age-restricted housing in Easton, Prosek said, “I don’t think that’s the place for it.”

Ron Merly, author of the Fly Fisher’s Guide to Connecticut, said “no other stream in New England” has the unique qualities of the Mill River. Merly has been fishing in the river since age 5, he said, and said has seen some types of trout eliminated from the river due to past development.

All development creates run-off that “will eventually find its way into the river,” said Merly, a Bridgeport resident and former president of Nutmeg Trout Unlimited Chapter 217. (Editor’s Note: The original story erroneously said Merly heads the local Trout Unlimited chapter.)

Also at the meeting, P&Z Chairman Robert Maquat asked resident Harold Rosnick what he thinks should happen with the South Park property. Rosnick owns and continues to develop land near the property, building upscale homes on lots of at least three acres. He also lives in the immediate vicinity.

The land presents the town with an opportunity to expand the tax base, Rosnick said, which could help hold down future tax increases. He said developing the property — such as for senior housing — wouldn’t negatively impact anyone in town, and “no one is town more impacted than me” with that possibility.

As of May 23, Hayes was still finalizing a draft of the South Park report that will be sent to the Board of Selectmen. The selectmen have asked the P&Z to look into whether Easton needs senior housing, if the South Park land would be an appropriate location, and what such a project might look like at the site.

Hayes’ initial analysis indicates 17 unattached houses with two living units each could be accommodated, for a total of 68 bedrooms.

This would be roughly equivalent to allowing one house per developable acre at the site, Hayes said, similar to the zoning in much of southeastern Easton, including on the western side of South Park Avenue. It’s also consistent with a recommendation in the town’s 2006 master plan, he said.

The land currently is zoned for three-acre lots.

With an age-restricted community, “by covenant you could limit the number of bedrooms and the number of people who live there,” Hayes said.

The buildings would have on-site septic systems, and have access to public water (Aquarion). There are no sewers in Easton, but the Trumbull/Bridgeport and Fairfield systems are located close to the South Park site.

Hayes said a development could be built around an underground natural gas pipeline that goes through the property.

Maquat said he and P&Z alternate Raymond Martin have spoken informally about the potential value of the property with Toll Brothers, a national, upscale housing development company active in the region.

They were told the site might be worth $4 million if a total of 125 bedrooms could be built there, which is more than $2 million less than the town paid for the land to prevent an earlier development proposal. Three-bedroom houses at the site might sell in the $525,000 range, they were told.

P&Z members will review Hayes’ final draft, make any desired changes, and forward it to the Board of Selectmen as soon as possible. “The selectmen are somewhat eager to receive it,” Maquat said.

The Mill River in Easton runs through the town-owned South Park property. — Archive photo

The Mill River in Easton runs through the town-owned South Park property. — Archive photo

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