Canton commission continues hearing on EV showroom, related development
By John Fitts
CANTON – The Canton Planning and Zoning Commission on Nov. 18 will resume its public hearing on a proposal to develop an electric vehicle showroom and gas station and convenience store with restaurants and drive-through on Route 44.
The commission began the hearing for the prospective development, proposed on the Simsbury/Canton town line by the owners of 9-15 Albany Turnpike, on Oct. 21.
The proposal consists of:
• A two-story, 23,500-square-foot electric vehicle showroom, designed by Simsbury-based Phase Zero Design, with a one-story service center, and rapid EV charging area
• A 8,384-square-foot foot gas station/convenience store that would include a sandwich shop, an ice cream shop and a coffee shop with a drive through.
The site is east of the location of the former La Trattoria Restaurant. All but 6 of the parcel’s 26 acres are in Simsbury, but most of this initial development would be in Canton.
The site would also have underground utilities and dark-sky-compliant lighting, a green roof, use of solar panels, sidewalks and other public enhancements, developers said. As proposed, the site would also include 117 parking spaces, but the applicant and commission both seem interested in reducing that number. The development team also touted the proposal’s use of bike racks, sidewalks into and throughout the property, benches, crosswalks and other pedestrian and bicycle friendly measures.
A traffic light is also proposed on Route 44, approximately at the current eastern entrance of Brass Lantern Road.
Developers also said the project will feature green spaces, indoor and outdoor seating and a fire pit area.
The enhancements, layout of the building and quality products -- features that could be enjoyed by EV owners, families and groups like sports teams -- make the proposed business much more than a traditional gas station, developers said.
The Simsbury Zoning Commission approved the site plan on Oct. 5, following a favorable recommendation from the Simsbury Design Review Board.
In Canton, developers are seeking site plan and special permit approval in a business zone, as a new form-based code or design village district regulation that governs the site.
The new code became effective after the application was filed.
The application requests a number of special permits for the type of uses as well as earthwork and grading, which according to a memo from Neil Pade, Canton’s director of Planning and Community Development, are “generally acceptable within the district, but are subject to standards set forth in the regulations and to conditions necessary to protect the public health, safety, convenience and property values.”
The commission will consider factors such as the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, purposes of the regulations, environmental protection and conservation, location suitability, suitable transportation conditions, public utilities and services, nuisance avoidance and long-term viability.
In its materials the development team addresses those criteria and at the Canton meeting. Development team members again emphasized the “future of transportation” theme they presented in Simsbury.
Attorney David J. Markowitz, a partner Hassett & George, said the EV showroom would provide the public the unique opportunity to view electric vehicles from several manufacturers - likely four.
“This really is not a car dealership,” he said. “It’s going to provide manufacturers without dealership opportunities or networks the opportunity to show their vehicles so potential buyers can see them, touch them and perhaps even drive them.”
People would then purchase vehicles online and not at the showroom, Markowitz added.
“We’re trying to be responsive, reactive and adaptive to what the future really holds from a transportation standpoint,” Kevin Solli, founder and principal engineer of Solli Engineering, said. “EV and sustainability are obviously a very critical component for future growth. This project really kind of brings a lot of those elements to play”
He compared the concept to an Apple store and said the site would serve as a prototype.
According to the application construction is anticipated to begin the spring 2022 and be completed approximately in fall 2023.
Real estate consultant Richard Correia, of RM Bradley, said the property, which includes a home, generates nearly $5,800 in taxes. A conservative estimate, he said, is that the development would generate close to $110,000 for the town.
Correia said with other planned development on the property as well as a neighboring parcel, that corner of town could generate as much as $700,000 to $800,000 annually.
“We believe this project is something that we as a community can be proud of,” Correia said. “It’s the first of its kind. It’s a prototype. It’s forward thinking.”
Public opinion, however, has been mixed and for the Oct. 21 meeting the commission heard from several residents and advisory groups, either verbally or through letters.
Canton resident Gary W. Adajian praised the proposal in a message to the commission via Neil Pade, Canton’s director of planning and community development.
“I am in favor of this project, and I see it as a benefit to the Town, not a detraction,” he wrote. “As I see it, Canton has not been the friendliest of towns as far as Business growth is concerned. I see businesses closing left and right, and not necessarily due to the pandemic. This was occurring long before that.”
Canton resident John Pech weighed in through both a letter and comments at the hearing.
He said he grew up in Simsbury and moved to Canton for its rural nature and compared the design of the EV showroom to something from the futuristic cartoon “The Jetsons” and said its futuristic design did not fit into the community.
“I support an electric vehicle car dealership but do not feel the developer needs to blast our mountain apart to develop the site,” he wrote. “They could place the dealership where the restaurant and single-family home is located with some minor blasting behind the restaurant if they need a bit more space. I think the mountain should be preserved mostly as is. It is a majestic natural entrance to our beautiful town. Some development is OK as long as we work with the land and not destroy its natural beauty.”
Canton’s Economic Development Agency said in a letter it had mixed feelings, noting the location in an opportunity zone, the positive tax impact the project would have and the level of “preparation, responsiveness and communication by the developer,” but also included some requests to facilitate plans for a bike path extension and other pedestrian and bicycle connectivity. The agency expressed concerns about the encroachment on nature, traffic impact and design.
In an Oct. 14 letter to the Canton Planning and Zoning Commission from the Canton Conservation Commission, chaired by Jay Kaplan praised the “unique proposal and thought that went into the project,” but also noted that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
The letter also expressed concern about the trap rock ridge.
“Trap rock ridges are unique, critical habitats within the state of Connecticut. This and the adjoining Onion Mountain ridge are the easternmost of Connecticut’s/New England’s trap rock ridge formations, and the only ones situated within the town of Canton. The commission is unanimous in believing that it would be a real loss to Canton’s natural resources to see any part of this ridge destroyed,” the letter said.
The agency also questioned whether the scale of the development was appropriate.
In his presentation to the commission, Solli acknowledged the project would require blasting and involve removing approximately 81,000 cubic yards of material at the site, much of which would be exported off the property.
But the development team contended the project would highlight the important features and minimize the removal as much as possible.
“We’re going to be able to create a really, really nice rock face behind this property and really kind of enhance it and provide a really cool aesthetic and really showcase some of the natural resources that exist out here and we’re really excited we were able to incorporate that into our design,” Solli said.
Blasting is a very regulated activity, Solli added.
“The actual process of blasting to accommodate rock removal is actually very scientific,” he said, noting that it would have to follow state and federal guidelines and involve working closely with fire marshals in both towns and use precautions such as pre-blast surveys and seismograph. The nearest home with a well is approximately 2,300 feet away, he said.
“We wouldn’t expect any adverse effects to the community or surrounding properties as part of the blasting operation and again it’s a very regimented and restricted operation,” Solli said.
Some processing could take place on the site in Simsbury but most would be trucked off site for processing, he said.
In his comments to the commission, Pade said the earth removal would be much more extensive than most projects the commission deals with.
“You have basically what’s going to be a quarry operation that you need to review and to recognize and figure out as part of the earthwork and grading aspect that is basically the removal of almost 50 feet of rock and 80,000 plus cubic yards,” Pade said. “That is something that would be a substantial operation within the town of Canton for a very good period of time and it’s something the commission has to have to have a very good understanding of how that’s going to occur.”
The design of the showroom and its proposed prominence at the town’s eastern “gateway” was also discussed at the meeting.
During his presentation, Solli referenced the design as “a crown jewel for the community.” Solli also touted features such as an outdoor patio, a portion of “green roof” and an area designed to accommodate potential solar panels.
“We think this is going to be an absolute stellar project to really be at the gateway,” Solli said. “We think it’s going to be a great addition to the community and we’re really proud of what they came up with.”
But several commission members, including Chairman Jonathan Thiesse, expressed some difference of opinion on the building design and how it would fit into Canton.
“If the development’s going to happen, I don’t have a problem with the right building. … But that building has to say ‘You’re in Canton,’” said Thiesse, who referenced converted buildings in San Francisco and suggested use of brick as one possibility. “I don’t really care if that building is going to be a prototype for Boston or Hartford or anywhere else. I want that building to say, ‘You’re entering Canton.’”
Thiesse also asked about potentially modifying the project to come more in line with the form-based code that was adopted after the application was submitted. Solli, however, said ideas such as visually shielding the gas pumps would not be viable in the marketplace.
Landscaping was another point of some contention. The project seeks a waiver on some landscaping requirements, which developers said would allow them to have less of an impact on the trap rock, but Thiesse and Pade both expressed doubt that the state Department of Transportation would allow the landscaping shown in the state right of way. Solli pushed back on the point somewhat but agreed to try and get preliminary commitment from the DOT, stating that in his experience, was generally OK if it didn’t harm visibility. He acknowledged that the DOT would not want to maintain it and suggested that point could be a condition of approval.
Pade also brought up the issue of traffic signal location, noting that one had been approved at 3-5 Albany Turnpike during the Lowe’s application. He said there has also been discussion of a signal at the other side of Brass Lantern Road where it aligns with Old Albany Turnpike, as well at the junction of Route 44 and Colonial Drive.
“That’s a very short stretch of road to have a bunch of ideas for traffic signal coordination. It’s something that really needs to be given greater thought,” he said. “Again, I don’t think anyone property owner has to carry the burden of that but it’s something we as a town have to start thinking about because there’s a lot of other development opportunities or amenities that might be able to be generated depending on what goes in. Some of them might be prohibited depending on what goes where.”
While the DOT does have jurisdiction, it will consider comments from the commission and the town’s traffic authority (police chief), Pade and Solli noted.
Another point of some discussion was the visual representation of how the project would look during and after construction.
For the meeting, Pade included some plans from circa 2007 for a proposed Lowe’s building that showed grading changes. At the Oct. 21 meeting, he also said some of the new images from the developers appeared to be stretched.
“In my opinion it’s not a true representation of what we’re going to see from all those perspectives,” Pade said. “With the amount of public interest there is in the viewshed change going into Canton, with this being a substantial gateway, I really do think the commission should be looking for something a little more accurate and more representative of a real condition in that situation.”
Solli said the team is happy to provide some additional information, but also contended the renderings were accurate depictions.
“I do think that while they are pretty pictures,” he said. “They are accurate representations of what these facilities will look like.”
Thiesse also wanted to see a grading plan that would show how the land would look over time. He also asked to see how one corner of the site would change visually if the owners pursue residential development on other portions of the site and/or neighboring parcels.
Thiesse also expressed some concern about what would happen if something derailed the project and said the commission should also be thinking of ways to make sure the town is protected should, for some reason, the project falter in the midst of excavation.
In his closing comments, Markowitz addressed some of the concerns, particularly those of design and rock removal.
“There are basically two prominent things in the POCD. One is to increase the commercial tax base and the other is the “community character” and being a resident of Canton for 35 years I certainly appreciate that,” he said. “This parcel is a little unusual because if you go down the hill 500 feet you’re in Simsbury with a big box shopping center, big box auto dealerships with lots of cars and lots of glass, a McDonald’s – maybe without golden arches but with a drive through – two gas stations, a car wash and as you’re leaving Simsbury that’s what you’re driving through so when you come to Canton at the top of this hill it’s a little bit different than getting into Canton . ... I’m very sensitive to what the comments of the residents were about the building and of Jonathan about the building and the look but as Kevin said we really look at this as the future of automobile travel and to have a Colonial structure with huge windows so that you can see the electric vehicles on site. I’m not quite sure whether or not that makes sense.”
Markowitz also reiterated his opinion that developers were minimizing the amount of disturbance and enhancing the visuals of the rock.
“We wanted to make it prominent, so that people who are looking at the site would be able to see some and hopefully appreciate it and add an aesthetic and also looking at the fact that this is a site that has been designated as business since I think 1957. It’s an opportunity site in the POCD it hasn’t been touched because of the huge expense to develop it because of the trap rock ridge and when Kevin was doing his design for this, he was very sensitive to leaving as much of the trap rock as possible. To lower the elevation and turn this into a quarry for O&G or somebody else who needed trap rock to me and to my client and to our design engineers just didn’t make a great deal of sense and I hope that the commission members keep that point in your mind’s eye and I appreciate the time.”
On Nov. 18, the commission will hear updates from the applicants, accept any public comment that is offered, and potentially consider additional information. The North Central Conservation District, for example, is expected to weigh in on some aspects of the plan.
Those who wish to submit comments to the commission can email them email@example.com.
Those interested in watching the Oct. 21 meeting or in checking the agenda and packet for the Nov. 18 meeting when available, can visittownofcantonct.org/agendas-minutes-meetings
Below are some renderings provided with the application.