The Battle of Prospect Street
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It was the afternoon of Jan. 22, just before the start of the Patriots’ and Giants’ championship games, and I needed something appropriate to eat. Thankfully, I live on the edge of downtown Milford, where there are three excellent pubs, and had a short walk down Prospect Street to decide which wings suited me best.
The Wepawaug River, which runs parallel to Prospect, was frozen over; most of my neighbors hadn’t cleaned the latest snow off their cars. Still, I saw they’d been keeping busy. At the south end of the street, near the overpass where Metro-North trains rattle by, several residents marched up and down the sidewalk, waving handmade signs.
They were protesting Prospect Falls, a new 51-unit apartment complex built by the Smith-Craft Real Estate Corporation. Or, more accurately, they were protesting its outdoor lights. “CAN’T SEE THE STARS/DIM THE LIGHTS,” read one sign. “BRIGHT STREET LIGHTS/SLEEPLESS NIGHTS,” read another. That afternoon, explained a woman who lived three houses down from me, Smith-Craft was having its first open house for prospective tenants at Prospect Falls. It seemed like the perfect time to make a statement. “I didn’t move to Milford to live in a parking lot,” she said, pausing to shake her sign at an oncoming car. A man who lived next to her said he’d driven past Milford’s other Smith-Craft developments, none of which featured lights as bright as these.
Each winter night, starting around 6 p.m., you could see their point—this neighborhood of historic homes would light up like, well, a football stadium. As I talked to more and more people, though, I realized that their anger dated back to an ugly battle that had started long before I’d arrived. In fact, nestled between Prospect Falls’ four apartment buildings was the house of John and Janet Barney. In order to have the complex built on their land, the Barneys had fought their neighbors for more than five years. That’s also how long it’s been since the two sides have spoken to each other.
The street’s most vocal revolutionary, Lily Flannigan, wasn’t picketing that January day because of a leg injury. So, a few weeks later, when she was feeling better, I dropped by to talk with Lily and her husband, Charles.
The Flannigans, who are in their 70s, live in a charming little cape. Out the back windows, you can see the peaceful Wepawaug. Out the front, you can see Prospect Falls and its lights. “Two decisions allowed this development to happen,” Lily says. The first was made before the Flannigans had even moved to Milford: In 1977, the residents of Prospect Street decided not to join the city’s historic district because they wanted the freedom to, for instance, put vinyl siding on their homes. While the street remains one of Milford’s oldest—a white clapboard on the north end was once the city’s Sabba-day house, a place where the Puritans ate and warmed up between church services—it never did join the district.
That set the stage for the second crucial decision (although it feels wrong to call it “crucial,” since most people on Prospect Street never even knew it was being made). Every 10 years, Connecticut’s communities are required to write a new plan of conservation and development to guide future zoning decisions. In 2002, Milford approved a plan that changed Prospect Street from residential zoning to mixed-use. “We didn’t understand what that was all about,” Lily admits. In fact, no one on the street did. One couple bought a house here in 2004; neither their realtor nor their lawyer knew that, legally speaking, Prospect Street could now be the home to a CVS.
Even after that decision, Prospect Street remained residential, and it certainly felt that way. “Everybody knew everybody,” Charles remembers. “And when something happened, everybody pitched in.” The prettiest spot of all was the Barneys’ back yard, two-plus acres that bordered Milford’s cemetery (est. 1642) and were home to hemlocks, willows, even a few apple trees. Deer would eat the Barneys’ apples, then drink from the Flannigans’ stretch of river. Charles remembers the time John Barney went to the hospital with heart problems; the Flannigans made sure to cut his grass while he was gone so he could enjoy the view while recuperating on the porch.
Then one day in 2005, John Barney knocked on the Flannigans’ door and told them he’d sold his land to a developer. The news shocked the entire street. Robert Smith, Jr.—the Smith in Smith-Craft—arranged a meeting at one of the neighbors’ houses. “He laid the plans out on the dining room table,” Lily recalls, “and I said, ‘It’s a beautiful project, but why does it need to be so big?’ Mr. Smith said, ‘Because I can.’ And right then we knew we had a tough fight.”