A Connecticut judge was recently asked to decide whether a restraining order should be entered to halt work on a project that allegedly violated environmental laws. Expert testimony by soil scientists was the focus of a two day hearing in New London Superior Court.
The Chelsea Gardens Controversy
A nonprofit foundation plans to create an 80-acre nature preserve and butterfly pavilion on land in Mohegan Park that it leased from the City of Norwich. The controversial Chelsea Botanical Gardens project has inspired protest from city residents who fear that pristine wilderness will be lost to structures that include a visitor’s center and an international gardening school. Supporters of the project argue that it will attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, providing an economic benefit to Norwich.
Clearcutting began on six acres within the park in April. Officials of Chelsea Gardens Foundation claimed the deforestation “is necessary to give future investors an idea of the project’s layout as they seek private contributions.”
Norwalk resident Chuck Evans Jr. disagrees. He filed a lawsuit against Chelsea Gardens Foundation alleging that the clearcutting is a public nuisance. Evans contends that the Foundation has violated local and state environmental regulations. The lawsuit seeks an injunction that would prohibit the project from moving forward.
As part of his lawsuit, Evans asked for a temporary restraining order. Granting the order would force the Foundation to stop working on the project until a final decision is made on Evans’ request for a permanent injunction.
Expert Testimony at the Restraining Order Hearing
Evans relied on the expert opinion of Stamford-based soil scientist Steven Danzer. During more than four hours of testimony, Danzer explained his belief that the clearcutting was environmentally harmful to the park’s wetlands because the Foundation had no plan to prevent soil erosion. According to Danzer, storm water runoff will increase due to the lack of ground cover. Danzer also testified that the clearcutting did not fall within the scope of state and local permits issued to the Foundation and that the Foundation failed to obtain a required storm water management permit.
On cross-examination, Danzer admitted that he did not inspect the wetlands before the clearcutting began and therefore could not perform a before-and-after comparison. He also acknowledged that he took no photographs to support his opinions.
The Foundation countered with the testimony of Norwich-based soil scientist Robert Russo. He testified that he prepared an ecological inventory of the site in 2000 and drafted a wetlands report in 2012.
Based on recent visits to the site, Russo contended that the clearcutting did not have an adverse effect upon wetlands. He testified that the porous soil remained capable of absorbing rainwater. Russo said he saw no significant difference between vegetation and habitat in the wetlands before and after the clearcutting.
Restraining Order Denied
The court denied the request for a temporary restraining order. That does not end the controversy, as the court could still grant an injunction after hearing more evidence during a trial. On the other hand, it will probably take strong evidence to persuade the judge to stop the project after his initial ruling permitted the Foundation to move forward.
The Chelsea Gardens Foundation waited less than a day after defeating the restraining order application before launching a campaign to raise the funds it requires to move the project into its next phase. Fundraising should be easier now that legal challenges to the development seem less likely to prevail.