Thursday, July 28, 2005

Madison Landing: What Kind of Development is OK for the Long Island Sound Area?

What kind of development should be allowed near Long Island Sound? Does it matter if a project is a typical subdivision, with houses spread out on large lots, or a "new urbanist" development that tries to create a neighborhood that fits in with the larger community?

In Madison, Connecticut, a developer wants to build 127 houses on an old airport next to Hammonasset state park, and use a septic system to treat its sewage.

Madison Landing, as it's called, is different because it is new urbanist. It will have sidewalks, streets that lead somewhere rather than cul-de-sacs, front porches, houses and townhouses on relatively small lots, a community meeting place, a trail near the salt marsh. It was designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk, a firm that has made its reputation proselytizing for traditional neighborhoods and against commonplace subdivisions.

Has that won it good will among neighbors? Not much apparently.

More important, though, is that while the development company has gotten town approvals, it has yet to convince the Connecticut DEP that its sewage won't affect Hammonasset and the Sound. Last week the Hartford Courant reported:

Engineers at the DEP are scrutinizing the designs for Madison Landing's septic system, to make sure sewage and wastewater from the proposed development won't end up in the Hammonasset River and the sensitive salt marsh that surrounds the property.

The long delay has raised the hopes of residents in Clinton and Madison who have opposed the project for years.

I happen to be biased in favor of "new urbanist" projects, and I'm friends with a couple of the people who worked tangentially on Madison Landing, which might make me more biased. But this seems to be one of those situations where a piece of property -- in this case, the old airport -- is going to be developed one way or another, and probably should be developed. So do you want a typical large-lot subdivision? A mall? More suburban sprawl? Or is it worth trying something new?

One of the people I know who worked on it is John Massengale, an architect and new urbanist planner, who participated in a charette for the project in 2001 and 2002. Last week I asked John about it in an e-mail. Here's what he said:

My reaction to reading the story is that the residents of Madison don’t really know as much about sewage and septic as they pretend to, but that they are NIMBYs grasping at whatever environmental straw they can.

Should the project be stopped if it is doing environmental damage? Yes.

Is the motive of Madison residents saving the environment? I don’t think so.

Nobody is helped by NIMBYs who use whatever means they can to try to stop projects.

A review process intended to judge the quality of the project would be an entirely different project.

John says that a town in New York that he and I are familiar with "makes developers jump through environmental hoops and still ends up with BAD PLACES, because they are not judging the quality of the places they review." He adds:

Sometimes they think they are, but they have lawyers, engineers and non-visual planners advising them.

Do you know Dana Beach, the Director of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League (SCCCL)? Many years ago he commissioned Dover Kohl [a planning firm] to study the effects of concentrated development versus sprawl, and more recently he’s written a paper for the Pew Ocean Commission (which he’s on, I think).

One of Andres’s standard comments is that environmentalists won’t let us build Charleston today. Dana comments that we have to look at the big picture and make tradeoffs for the common good and the environment as a whole.

Nobody wants their hometown to change dramatically, and nobody wants development that's going to damage Long Island Sound. But the old airport is going to be built on, so let's move past suburban sprawl and get something better. Here's hoping the DEP scrutinizes it as closely as anything it's ever scrutinized, and finds that it's worthy of approving.


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