Fixing low school enrollment is new pitch for controversial Bridgewater development
BRIDGEWATER — For decades, John Carr has tried to develop 24 acres off Main Street North into a large housing complex. For decades, he’s been thwarted by town officials who say the development doesn’t fit with the town’s rural character and could threaten its water supply.
Lately, Carr has refined his pitch, and the development could help solve a major problem facing Bridgewater. It could significantly bolster dwindling school enrollment and help save a Region 12 school district struggling to remain viable.
He proposes a “healthy community hub” of 100 units with affordable, handicapped-accessible housing for the elderly and the middle class. He calls it Joshua Heights.
“The development will bring in 50, 60 kids into the community, and we need it.” Carr said. “This won’t solve the problem, but it’ll ameliorate the downturn.”
He pointed to enrollment projections that show only 536 students will be in the district — Brigdgewater, Roxbury and Washington — in 2025, compared to the average of 905 over the last 10 years. The district’s infrastructure was created to accommodate 1,400 to 1,500 total students, he said, and if something isn’t done the system will dip well below the about 50 percent occupancy it sits at now.
Carr’s development could grow Bridgewater’s population by as much as 20 percent overnight.
“It’s like putting an elephant on a postage stamp,” said First Selectman Curtis Read. The project, on a rocky patch, will also disrupt the little ground water in the town and could potentially mess with the watershed, Read said.
Town and school officials agree with Carr that enrollment in the district is a problem. It concerns town officials and the Parent Teacher Organization enough that the PTO morphed into a “guerrilla marketing” group that has printed fliers, sent out direct mailers, created a mascot and produced online videos. Together, the town and PTO now offer a scholarship for families that want to pay tuition to send their children to Burnham. First Selectman Curtis Read said he’s also working to refine the town’s zoning laws to allow homeowners to build additions and rent them out to young families.
But town officials, school board members and activists all say Carr’s Joshua Heights Development won’t be the benefit to the town that Carr describes, citing impact on the environment and the town’s rural character.
Burnham PTO President Carolan Dwyer and two school board members said the town needs kids, but this is not the project to bring them.
Carr bought the land in 1986 and has been fighting to get an environmental “all clear” with the town since 1997. Court filings show Carr and the town appealing unfavorable rulings on a Planning and Zoning Commission denial for Joshua Heights development for six years, until the state Supreme Court reversed the denial in 2003.
“I have submitted five different development plans over the years, which were not approved for a whole variety of reasons,” Carr said. “None of which had to do with the merit of the project.”
The final decision was Judge William Mottolese’s. He decided that the town couldn’t deny the project outright, because the development complies with the state “Affordable Housing” statute as 25 percent of the homes built would be set aside for people making less than $70,000 a year.
Mottolese did allow for the town to make reasonable requests, which have taken the form of environmental concerns about water supply, wastewater and wetlands worries. For the past decade, Carr says he’s waited out the busted real estate market while clearing the project with the state Department of Public Health and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. In August, DEEP gave a tentative approval of Carr’s proposed waste management system. Carr has gotten approvals on the project from the DPH in the past. Read said he’s not sure those approvals are still valid.
The court battle that went to the Supreme Court was largely about the town’s statutory requirement to OK affordable housing if the development is reasonable. Less than 10 percent of the towns housing stock is “affordable.” Back in the early-aughts, 0.25 percent of the town’s housing stock was “affordable.” Town officials maintain that their denial of the project is reasonable due to its environmental impacts.
On some of those impacts, there will be a public hearing on Tuesday at the Burnham School about DEEP’s tentative approval. About 200 people signed a petition in Town Hall to be heard on the project. The petition only needed 25 signatures.
Although residents can be heard before DEEP makes a final decision in coming months, tentative approvals are rarely overturned, said Michael Hart, DEEP Supervising Sanitary Engineer in the department’s Water Permitting and Enforcement division. They are often refined, he added.
Hart said testing shows that Carr’s proposed mini-water-treatment facility coupled with the parcel’s ability to absorb and handle waste water is so efficient that a well on a plot next door would produce drinkable water.
“We’re very aware of the site hydro-geology and we make sure that a full renovation (transition to OK water) will occur before you hit water or the property line,” he said.
Read said he still isn’t convinced the project won’t harm the town’s water — and that the scale is far too large for the town’s water supply.
“It’s an acceptable system, but what it's gonna do to our local environment is what concerns us.” Read said. “In a broad way, we’re worried about 30-gallons-a-minute of effluent going into the system.”
Carr, and his early-2000s attorney Neil R. Marcus, said once this DEEP approval goes through in coming months, Carr will have the green light to develop. They also said they don’t think the town’s adversarial stance to the project has much to do with the environment. It’s pushback to large housing developments instead, they said.
Marcus said that the 0.25 percent of affordable housing in Bridgewater statistic likely hasn’t changed.
“In most of the smaller towns it hasn’t,” he said.
Marcus, a well-known land use lawyer in Connecticut, said small-town pushback is nothing new, and he’d be glad to see Carr’s proposal come through. The town is out of balance, like other towns, because of excessively strict zoning, Marcus added.
Bridgewater’s school system has struggled because town laws have created more of an affluent bedroom community than a healthy town can be, Marcus said.
“Think about it: it’s not only the school. What about the volunteer fire department?” Marcus asked. “Where will they come from? Wall Street?”
And Carr, who says he’s sure the development will get the town’s court-ordered OK after decades, said all his work and waiting was worth it.
“I have a very resolute nature,” Carr said. “Good will prevail and good people have to be persistent.”
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