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New Attempt to Develop Protected Land Sparks Debate

For the fourth time in more than 15 years, Joseph F. Carabetta is seeking to develop a parcel of land protected as part of the Cathole Mountain Ridgeline Zone.

Debate erupted and tempers flared Wednesday night as the Meriden Planning Commission considered a request to amend the map that defines areas of open space protected by the Cathole Mountain Ridgeline Zone. Summerhill, LLC, a Carabetta company, has requested that a 13-acre knoll at the entrance to Cathole Mountain be excluded from the protection zone so townhouses can be built on the property.

Presentations given by lawyers on both sides of the issue at times grew contentious and tried the patience of the usually even-tempered Commission Chairman Enrico Buccilli.

 “If you can show me that this land does not belong in the ridgeline protection zone, that would be great,” said Buccilli. “Nobody wants to prevent Mr. Carabetta or anyone else from developing his property if he is legally allowed to do so.”

This particular parcel of land, separated from Cathole Mountain by Sam’s Road, has been the subject of development debates and lawsuits for more than 15 years. In 1995, before the ridgeline protection ordinance even went into effect, a request was made to level the hill to make room for 36 housing units. That request was denied because it was not in keeping with the town’s zoning plans for that land. In June of 2000, another application to flatten the hill and build 96 residential units was turned down, this time in part because the land was protected. A third request in 2003 was also denied.

In addition, once the ridgeline protection ordinance was enacted, the owners filed suit in 1998 against the city for applying ridgeline zoning to their properties. After a battle lasting more than 10 years, the courts ruled against the plaintiffs in 2009, and ridgeline protection prevailed.

With the amount of scrutiny already given to this issue, “Any new evidence should be irrefutable and needs to be clear,” said Planning Director Dominic Caruso.

“We are offering new evidence,” said William T. Shea, an attorney for Summerhill. “We have new information that has never been presented to the planning commission or any other commission of the city of Meriden.”

Shea referred to a map, first rendered in 1956 by surveyor Patricia Hanshaw, that labels the hill in question as a knoll separate from Cathole Mountain.

“What I would suggest to this commission is that you put your walking shoes on and walk down Sam’s Road,” Shea added. The hill is clearly separated from the mountain by the road, he pointed out.

Opponents argued, however, that the hill was separated from the rest of the mountain when the road was put in.

Geological experts on both sides of the issue gave conflicting reports about whether the hill was part of the ridgeline. The ordinance clearly defines the ridgeline as having a slope of 50 percent or more for a stretch of 50 feet or more.

Attorney Stephen Andersen, who represents Tilcon Company, the owners of the property at 431 Kensington Avenue, adjacent to the hill in question, said, “You can’t keep trying the same thing over and over. The Commission has found three times that this area is part of the Cathole Mountain Ridgeline Protection Zone.”

Anderson went on to warn, “You have no assurance that he won’t ravage that hill.”

Summerhill attorney Dominic Aprile, however, informed the commission that the developer has no intention to destroy the hill, remove any of the trap rock, or build high-rise structures, as was included in previous plans for the property.

In the end, Buccilli said, “For me to make a decision tonight and make a recommendation to the city council would be foolish. There are a lot of unanswered questions here.”

On the advice of the commission’s own counsel, a motion was approved to recommend that the city council go ahead with the public hearing on this issue planned for next Tuesday, May 17th. But the commission will ask that the hearing remain open until the planning commission is ready to give its input.

“We’ve been at this for 18 years,” said Shea. “A few more weeks won’t make a difference.”

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