Planning officials on Tuesday night voiced support for proposed changes to the town’s approval for the Merritt Village, signaling the clearing of a final hurdle for the 110-unit condo-and-apartment complex.
Because archeological excavations have been undertaken since the Planning & Zoning Commission’s November approval—creating a need to reword parts of it—the group at its regular meeting stopped short of formally voting on an application filed on behalf of property owner M2 Partners.
Yet P&Z spoke favorably of updating conditions regarding a burial ground on the Maple Street site that M2 had found objectionable because, if upheld, they would have required the property owner to seek approval for an amended site plan.
Saying they’re concerned about preserving local history, some in town have called for P&Z to designate as “cemetery” ground areas of the Maple Street property where, archeological experts have said, people who had been buried there were deliberately dug up and moved to more desirable resting places, such as Lakeview Cemetery. The remaining disinterred grave shafts are scattered throughout a substantial parcel at Merritt Apartments.
Yet P&Z commissioners offered only praise for M2 managing principal Arnold Karp and his identification of a burial ground on the property and subsequent, transparent, self-funded archeological study of it.
Further, commissioner Dick Ward said, the comment from some M2 opponents that “once a cemetery, always a cemetery” is “a bit of a difficult premise to accept.”
While defining and protecting an area where buried bodies continue to lay in rest “is appropriate,” Ward said, “I would also point out that there is a hint of hypocrisy in this, because for the last 100 years nobody seems to have really cared about this entire cemetery.”
“There has been some pavement put on a part it and a fence put in across the middle of it,” he said at the meeting, held in Town Hall. “It hasn’t been maintained, so I find that this sudden great concern is a little thin.”
Represented by attorney Steve Finn of Stamford-based Wofsey Rosen Kweskin & Kuriansky LLP, M2 Partners after six hearings—several of them well attended, and with public comments from dozens of advocates as well as detractors—won approval of the Merritt Village project, with 60-plus conditions. During the months that the project was before P&Z, the applicant reduced the number of units and height of several buildings, among other changes.
M2 filed an administrative appeal to some of the conditions, and lingering questions about the presence of bodies in the Maple Street Burial Ground held up the developer as three intact remains turned up in December, as did fragments from bodies that experts said resulted from shoddy work in disinterring them. Those discoveries led to a more comprehensive archeological study of the site.
The project now appears poised to move forward.
M2 officials have said they face extensive abatement of asbestos and lead paint prior to the physical demolition of Merritt Apartments. The two-year project, if it starts in earnest this spring, should be finished by the spring of 2019, officials have said.
During the meeting, Town Planner Steve Palmer reviewed maps of the burial ground and state laws regarding cemetery preservation. P&Z, he said, was required to determine whether the parcels “contain historic resources” and if they do, what steps must be made to protect them and “enhance the character and environment of the area.”
“Ultimately, what you are looking at is, you are really defining whether or not this subject area is unique or historic in its present state,” Palmer said.
“You are not really looking at eliminating a potentially historic area here. What you are really doing is you are defining it as it’s been used over time—the cemetery, the burial plots. A lot has changed. This new look at this, which really would not have happened without the application, gives the commission and the town new insight as to what is actually there and what is not. So I think this is a really good effort on the applicant’s part for providing this information to the town, and it is now your responsibility to determine if these are unique and historic and to what degree this area deserves more protection than the applicant has already agreed to provide.”
Commissioner John Kriz said that if people’s “earthly remains have been moved elsewhere by their loved ones” then the area now amounts to “an abandoned area.”
“I think it is appropriate that the Law interments are left there,” Kriz said, referring to the remains of a prominent New Canaan man who died 182 years ago, David Law, and his two sons. “Call me old school but ‘final resting place’ should mean something.”
Fellow commissioners echoed his sentiments.
Laszlo Papp said that “at the end of the day, we have to thank Arnold” for stepping up to preserve “not only a neglected but abused and desecrated cemetery.”
“It was curious that nobody spoke about the preservation of this cemetery on the abandoned side,” Papp said.
Only M2 Partners “indicated that they would fence it and mark and as much as on their side as can be done to conserve the existing cemetery in a proper way, so I am in favor of accepting their recommendations,” he added.
P&Z also voiced support for amending other conditions to which M2 had raised concerns, one regarding the number of parking spaces required—the result of a simple mathematical miscalculation, Chairman John Goodwin said—and details surrounding a fence to be erected during construction.