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Canton Commissioners Express Concern with Intensity of Proposed Development at Town Line

By John Fitts

CANTON – While it did not take a vote at its May 19 meeting, the Canton Planning and Zoning Commission seemed poised to deny an application for a proposed 23,500 square foot Electric Vehicle Showroom, 20-pump fueling station and convenience store with eateries at the Canton/Simsbury town line.

In discussing special permits, particularly for earthwork removal, sought for roughly 26-acre 9-15 Albany Turnpike site, commission members were clear that they felt the plan did not strike the balance of needed commercial development and community character referenced in the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development.

“The POCD anticipates some development on this site so I think appropriate development and commercial development – the POCD supports that and I support that,” said commission chairman Jonathan Thiesse, adding that the document also reference rural character and appropriate scale. “I see a very intense, dense, much more large-scale development than what I think this site can support or should be supporting.”

While Simsbury's commission approved the proposal in one brief meeting, it has been a controversial one and while most of the acreage is in Simsbury, the majority of this development would be in Canton

The developer’s consultants touted the plan as “the future of transportation” and a visionary approach to help facilitate the transition to Electric Vehicles with a showroom that would also include a service center and charging stations, a gas station with pumps designed to convert to rapid EV chargers and eateries and community spaces that offered a “higher level” than the typical convenience store. They also touted a proposal to conserve the remaining ridgeline in Canton.

While developer Mark Greenberg is listed as manager of the LLC that owns 9-15 Albany Turnpike, Michael Frisbie, of Noble Gas would be the owner/operator of the commercial development and he has said the plan would serve as a template for other locations.

Opponents attacked the scope of the plan, some of its design elements and the proposed blasting, which according to one document with the application would involve removing as much as 118,450 cubic yards of the trap rock ridge from roughly 3.4 acres of the site.

While the public hearing began last fall, it was earlier this year that Canton Advocates for Responsible Expansion filed a petition for intervention, which by state law allows an individual or organization party status if a proposal “involves conduct which has, or which is reasonably likely to have, the effect of unreasonably polluting, impairing or destroying the public trust in the air, water or other natural resources of the state.” The law also facilitates the potential prohibition of such activities if the commission feels that there is the likelihood of impairment and additionally feels there is a “feasible and prudent alternative consistent with the reasonable requirements of the public health, safety and welfare.”

That intervention added to the complexity of the public hearing, which went a total of 7 meetings and experts for C.A.R.E. argued that the application could potentially mobilize pollutants emanating from 51 Albany Turnpike, a state superfund site and the former home of J. Swift Chemical.

Those experts also alleged threats to area wells and other potential issues.

While developers refuted the potential for pollution mobilization and many other issues, they did amend the application and added additional safeguards, such as proposed liners for the fueling station, to add another layer of protection – in addition to others – against any potential spills.

As the commission began its deliberations May 19, that intervention petition dominated much of the initial conversation and a presentation from the commission’s geological consultants sounded much like an advanced science lecture as professionals from GZA Geo environmental reviewed much of the testimony, the complex geology of the area, the equally complex contamination issues, and other considerations with the application.

Several commissioners felt that C.A.R.E. ultimately did not meet its burden of proof that the project was reasonably likely to cause unreasonable harm in terms the portions of its petition that referenced the likelihood of degradation of groundwater or the “fate” or “transport” of chemicals from the superfund site.

However, many commissioners were much more agreeable to the intervention petition’s reference to the “destruction and loss of significant environmental features” in reference to the ridgeline, which the POCD refers to as a “defining scenic quality of this [East District] gateway”

At the same time, several commissions said they were still struggling with the issue and the fact that the POCD also identifies the property, long zoned for commercial use, as an opportunity site.

The commission ultimately did not vote on the intervention, agreeing to continue the conversation to the next meeting, while also largely concurring that alternatives for the property did exist and referencing the developer’s willingness through the process to modify the plan.

At the commission’s May 5 meeting – the night it closed the public hearing, Kevin Solli, principal/founder of Solli Engineering, speaking on behalf of the development team, emphasized that he felt the plan was the best for the site and offered his perspective that the team had come in with a responsible plan and had been so willing to modify its design and site plan to address many of the concerns it agreed with. As he had in previous meetings, he expressed his pride in the plan and said it balanced concerns for the environment, much needed development, and community character.

“We believe that what we proposed really does truly represent the best way to marry those different elements of the POCD and to develop a piece of property that really can be a contributing piece of property to the commercial tax base of Canton and could be something the community can be proud of. This started off with a discussion about an EV showroom and we’ve had so much protracted discussion about other things that we don’t believe to be well founded .... I want to bring it back. This is a beautiful building that we’ve been able to make architectural modifications to in response to commission comments. We’ve incorporated changes to not only the EV showroom but also the proposed convenience store, the gas station/ convenience store. We think that this is a great example of how an applicant can make concessions to a plan in response to commission comments to get a better project that becomes a better product.”

But several commissioners felt the plan did not strike the balance noted in the POCD.

“I view this as a difficult site,” said Aimee Hoben. “Technically I think with the rock and slope it’s a difficult site and it’s a very intensive proposal. Based on the environmental and cultural significance of the site to the town, while I would support commercial development on this site I think it warrants and requires a more sensitive proposal.”

While he raised some issues with the intervener statute earlier in the meeting and just how far someone could take the concept of environmental harm, commissioner Lans Perry said, in part, “I just think that’s it somewhat problematic to have that much earthwork if the commission has found they believe this is a natural resource worthy of conservation. I just don’t see how you can get past that.”

The commission is set to resume its deliberations on June 16. Prior to the meeting, the commission’s attorney Kenneth Slater of Halloran Sage, who also helped the commission with numerous questions during the meeting, and Neil Pade, the town’s director of Planning and Community Development, will work on a draft motion the commission will likely consider that evening.

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