The Battle of Prospect Street

 

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.”
 

 

That fight became known through much of New Haven County. Pizza delivery guys once asked, “Where’s Prospect Street?” but now everyone knew. Lily and Charles, and the rest of the street put sarcastic “For Sale” signs in every yard but the Barneys’. They gathered signatures, forced hearings, sold bumper stickers and eventually took the town and Smith-Craft to court—twice.

Ultimately, though, the developer won out. Smith-Craft demolished one house that had been built in 1805—the Barneys had bought it a few years back—and wedged in four buildings’ worth of one-bedroom  (starting at $1,600) and two-bedroom ($2,100) apartments. They also installed and turned on those lights.

There’s always another side to the story, and, in this case, I found it on the other side of the street. Robert Smith—born and raised in Milford, by the way—pointed out that Yale’s Urban Design Workshop had advised the city that it needed more housing complexes like Prospect Falls. “People who live downtown seek a compact, vibrant, mixed-use community,” Smith says. Downtown Milford’s pubs—and its delis and boutiques and everything else—could use the extra customers, ideally living within walking distance. Its train station could even connect them as commuters to New Haven and New York, which have the two lowest apartment-vacancy rates in the nation.

I also talked to John and Janet Barney—the first interview they’d agreed to in years. In 1951, John’s father, who was one of Milford’s most prominent physicians, moved his family to the house on Prospect Street. John and Janet took over in the 1980s because they thought it would be a good place to raise their children. And it was. They showed me around their lovely home—it was built in 1850—and explained that their connection with Smith went back so far that he and his father had built their family room out back. As John walked me out the front door, he stressed that, in his mind, the apartments fit the community just fine. Then he said goodbye and gave a friendly wave to one of his new neighbors, who was just then pulling into Prospect Falls’ brightly illuminated parking lot.

Many people disagree with the Barneys about that fit. Jeanne Cervin, who just started her third term on Milford’s planning and zoning board, had said as much when she reviewed Prospect Falls’ original application. “I’d much rather not see this happen,” she said during a 2007 meeting. “[But] we have to comply with state and city regulations.” The Flannigans see things Cervin’s way. “I do agree with smart urban planning,” Lily says, “but we felt Prospect Street was different.” Many residents also complain that Prospect Falls, for which the Barneys received more than $2 million, seems like a project where the developers tried to squeeze out every available dollar from the small amount of land involved.

And then there are those lights—so bright with their harsh white glare that it hurts a little to look at them. The Lily Pad, a small bed-and-breakfast right across the street from Prospect Falls, had to replace its blinds with blackout shades after its guests kept complaining. Residents have contacted the mayor, the city planner and various aldermen. “The lights do seem like an intrusion,” Cervin says. “However, they are in compliance with regulations.”

But Cervin does wonder why Smith hasn’t done more to accommodate the residents. “Outside of this,” she says, “Smith-Craft has a history of being quite good to the neighbors.” The people on Prospect Street think it’s Smith’s way of getting the last laugh—“a stick-your-finger-in-our-eye response to us,” as Lily puts it.

Smith says he can’t change the lights because of liability issues and that the fixtures are the same ones used by the city of Milford. But it’s also clear he ran out of patience with Prospect Street a long time ago. At one point Smith-Craft agreed to a compromise—one building, fewer units, more space and a handsome stone wall between the complex and the cemetery—but when they won a pending lawsuit over their original plan, they went back to it instead.

Smith offers a rebuttal here, as well. “We were obligated under our contract with the Barneys to complete the purchase once any one of the approvals was final,” he says. So now Prospect Falls sits so close to the cemetery that, thanks to the street lights, you can stand next to someone’s grave and read a magazine at night. You can do the same thing on the far side of the street, where Lily and the other residents continued putting up anti-illumination yard signs. Then in March they all received letters from Milford’s zoning enforcement officer. Because of “numerous complaints,” the residents of Prospect Street would need to remove their signs.

After all, the letter pointed out, they lived on residential property.
 

The Battle of Prospect Street

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