Development hearing continued to Feb. 17
Updated: Feb 5, 2021
Posted Jan. 20
Updated Feb. 5
By John Fitts
CANTON – As the controversy over a proposed electric vehicle showroom and related development proposed for the Canton/Simsbury town line continues, the Planning and Zoning Commission is set to continue its hearing on the matter to Feb. 17.
The owners of 9-15 Albany Turnpike have proposed a 23,500-square-foot EV showroom, a 20-pump fueling station and a convenience store and eateries with a drive through and seating areas. A traffic light is proposed at the eastern entrance of Brass Lantern Road and the project would sit to the east of the old La Trattoria site on the Simsbury town line.
The proposal seeks a number of special permits under Canton’s business zone regulations.
While most of the 26-acre property is in Simsbury, much of the development would be in Canton. Developers received approval in one brief meeting before the Simsbury Zoning Commission.
Developers say the project – with features such as pumps designed to convert to rapid EV chargers and an educational component – is designed to hasten the transition to alternative fuels. The development team has also emphasized local connections of some of those involved and featured Michael Frisbie, the planned owner operator, during previous meetings.
The public hearing opened last fall and the project has been controversial. While some residents have expressed support, opposition has intensified in recent weeks.
Among the concerns raised by residents are design, scale of the project, traffic and blasting of a portion of the trap rock ridge, both for aesthetic reasons and concerns about wells, infrastructure and the presence of a state Superfund site 1,500 feet from the property.
A Planning and Zoning Commission meeting Jan. 19 marked the fourth night of a public hearing on the matter, a meeting that went to 12:42 a.m. – dashing the hopes to developers to conclude the hearing.
That evening the commission heard wide ranging perspectives from developer’s consultants, members of the general public, and from professionals retained by Canton Advocates for Responsible Expansion.
The design of the proposed buildings, particularly the EV showroom, has been one area of concern with the project, even among some commission members. Prior to this latest meeting, developers submitted new renderings for both the EV showrooms as well as the convenience/eatery building, the latter of which noted potential tenants, including Nardelli’s Grinder Shoppe.
Chris Millard of Simsbury-based Phase Zero Design reviewed some of those architectural changes with the commission.
While the convenience store design hadn’t generated much feedback, changes were made to bring it more in line with the town’s new form-based code, Millard said, noting that brick exterior had been replaced with a stone base and clapboard façade.
For the EV showroom, changes were made to the carport displays on the second level. Enclosed glass box structures were modified to an open balcony with glass railing and vertical columns of support below.
Other changes to the building included the removal of metal paneling materials and increased use of simulated wood siding, stone veneer and CMU block, giving a more subdued look.
Millard told commission members he grew up in Canton and spent 20 years in town.
“After working on this project and working on the architecture for this building, I truly believe that this architecture and this building design fits well within the character of where it’s located in the town of Canton,” he said.
The ridgeline and blasting
While some residents talked about the design and concerns such as traffic and overall scale of the project, issues related to the proposed blasting largely dominated the hearing. The project, according to one report included with the application, would involve blasting to remove approximately 118,450 cubic yards of “bedrock” or trap rock ridge from roughly 3.4 acres on the site.
In all, the project narrative notes that the total net export from the site would be 139,741 cubic yards of material. Documents estimate that the removal of some 181,664 tons of material from the site would take place over approximately 600 working days over a two-year period for a proposed six days a week.
The application states, “Blasting will not occur daily for consecutive weeks, but rather as required, to include intermittent time for standard excavation and handling of materials such as sorting, stockpiling, and exporting. For the purposes of this project, we assume two to three blasts will take place per month during rock removal activities. Assuming 375 days of construction are dedicated to earthwork operations throughout the two-year construction period, an average of approximately 20 trucks per day will be entering and be exiting the site, on days that export operations occur.”
The commission does not grant blasting permits but an earthwork removal permit is required and can include conditions. Additionally, the commission’s special permit criteria include factors that speak to the environment, public health and safety, and other quality of life considerations.
In addition to the public, Connecticut Water Company and MDC have written letters of concern about blasting at the site due to an area of aquifer recharge and a water main under Route 44 respectively.
In past meetings, developers have touted the incorporation of rock face in their proposal and at the Jan. 19 meeting Kevin Solli, principal of Solli Engineering, said the team recognized the importance of the ridge.
He said the project would impact approximately 600 feet of the 2,220 feet of ridgeline along the Canton town line portion of the property. In all, going past Onion Mountain in Simsbury, there is approximately 18,220 feet of ridge, he said.
“We’re proposing to impact a very, very small area on our property immediately adjacent to Route 44 and when you look at that from an overall standpoint, we’re proposing to impact roughly three percent of the overall ridge line,” he said. “And I think it’s an important point that we want to make and get out there that while the ridge is an important feature in the town of Canton, our proposed application is only proposed to impact a very, very small percentage of that.”
He also said the developers have now proposed a conservation easement for approximately 4.7 acres of ridge line along the Canton portion of the property.
In previous meetings, developers have talked about safety measures and the process of blasting. The have also contended that a hydrogeology report, completed by WSP, and a GZA generated peer review of it – both done at the request of the commission – have shown it can be done safely.
On the 19th, Andy Nagy, owner of Blastech in Southington, spoke about the project, called it fairly typical in terms of technique for a blasting project and described some of the safeguards, such as blasting mats and seismographs. He said wells are only a concern if blasting goes through a supplying water source and an issue he has not seen. The activity would not affect the aquifer and there are no pollutants that would be left because “everything burns,” he said, adding that bedrock only fractures 15 times beyond a bore hole.
He also said the company is conservative and always looks to stay within 50 percent of its allowed peak velocity.
“I don’t think that vibration criteria on this project is an issue,” he said. “It’s all a mystery of what blasting does that people fear more than anything and most if it just here say. It’s not scientific.”
But opponents contend that the development team still has more work to do.
Evan Glass, hydrogeologist and environmental professional at ALTA Environmental, one to speak to the commission Jan. 19 on behalf of Canton Advocates for Responsible Expansion, contends that the developers have not adequately answered two issues concerning the proposal.
The first, he said, is the question of whether blasting could affect the rate or distance of migration for groundwater or soil vapor contamination from the Superfund site at 51 Albany Turnpike, the state Superfund site.
In the 1950s and 1960s J. Swift Chemical operated on the property and buried waste solvent according the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. In the 1980s public water was extended in the area. In 2006 the state received bids to install venting systems at six commercial properties determined to be at long-term risk but the work was not done, according the agency website. In 2007 a sub-slab depressurization system was installed at a home on Old Albany Turnpike. And vapor intrusion measures were installed on some neighboring properties, DEEP adds.
The site has been the subject of largely unpaid judgments and tax disputes and is owned by an out of state holding company.
Glass contends that WSP should get more information from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection about the plume maps, seismic surveys and other information they couldn’t obtain due to the state file rooms being affected by COVID.
“More work should be done to look into the drainage basin divide that separates this property from the state superfund site in light of a mapped bedrock fault that crosses between the areas and connects to a larger fault,” he said.
“When bedrock contamination does occur it often remains generally unmitigated for decades. So, it’s prudent to air on the side of caution before making decisions regarding on activities that could possibly spread groundwater or soil vapor contaminations,” he added at another point in the conversation.
Glass also contends the development should include a secondary containment system for fuel storage, to ensure that no gas leaks go through the crushed stone and into the bedrock. He contended that no matter how good new tanks are, human error leads to leaks at other junctures.
“What I’m recommending is more of a secondary containment than just an individual tank because it’s not just a tank that leaks; it’s the tank, the piping and the dispensers,” he said.
He also contended a pre-blast well survey should include those in a 2,500 foot radius from planned blasting area, a greater distance than included in the WSP report.
The meeting ended prior to WSP comments, but Solli said the sites were horizontal and vertically separated and did ask Glass some questions regarding his comments.
“The WSP report reviewed not only information from DEEP but also from the Farmington Valley Health District and did have some pretty substantial information regarding groundwater quality, the levels of contaminants and the direction and flows if which those contaminants were flowing which is to the southwest,” said Solli, who further describing elevation and the EV sites distance from the aquifer. “So, I thought they had come to a conclusion that the groundwater plume was concentrated in the shallow water overburden and to a significantly lower degree in the bedrock aquifer and that it was traveling away from our site.”
“They did qualify their statements very carefully, recognizing that they had to get to a conclusion but they didn’t have the information that they wanted to get,” said Glass, who also said vapors can migrate irrespective "of drainage divide or elevation.”
Solli contended that the blasting statements were not qualified in the WSP report or a peer review by GZA.
“There’s been a couple of different experts who said the blasting activity proposed here won’t have an impact on that and I don’t think those were really qualified in any way,” he said. “They both came to those conclusions. Are you disagreeing with those conclusions?”
“There’s no absolutes and when you have even a small chance of a really bad thing happening,” Glass said. “You can reduce that even further by getting additional information and I think that’s prudent.”
Solli said the team would address the issues in more detail.
“All of that stuff has been addressed with the new technology and Mike Frisbie will be going into that in a little more detail,” Solli said. “We can certainly address all those concerns regarding secondary containment to make sure those protection measures are in place into the future.”
Bill Warzecha, retired DEEP geologist/hydrogeologist who spent 22 years as the supervising environmental analyst for the Remediation Division, also addressed the commission on the 19th and addressed some potential issues with blasting, including Acid Rock Drainage and among his suggestions was to make sure a geologist inspects the site to ensure that “adjacent rock formations” beyond those immediately visible to ensure they do not contain iron sulfides that can result in pollution.
While not the only concern blasting and the ridgeline was a significant theme in the comments of many residents as well.
“The trap rock ridges of our state are a limited resource, which although vast and impressive to our eyes, represent a fragile network of critical habitat on which diverse flora and fauna depend,” said Hayley Kolding, who said the blasting would destroy areas of three habitats deemed critical. She argued that a full botanical survey should have been conducted. She noted sections of the regulations that speak the environment, property values and neighborhood compatibility.
“This proposal isn’t just blasting three percent of the ridgeline. It’s blasting an iconic section that is a landmark for visitors entering Canton and residents returning home at the end of the day. To remove this section of ridgeline that serves as a gateway to our town would communicate a lack of concern for the small town, the rural beauty that defines so much of Canton’s appeal, which would be detrimental to property values and to Canton’s ability to attract shoppers that come from out of town to enjoy the small town experience that our sweet town offers. In short, this is not just three percent of the ridgeline; it is a highly visible portion of the ridgeline. Our regulations can only be successful if we honor them and their intentions.”
Susan Masino of West Simsbury, a professor and researcher with a PHD in biology, who co-chairs the science and technology working group of the Governor’s Council on Climate Change, said the ridge was mapped on the eastern wildway and considered an important corridor for species movement and migration, especially in the future as climate change affects the earth.
“Given everything we know right now, protecting nature and protecting clean water is a number one priority. These are lifelines and reducing atmospheric carbon is pointless if we don’t protect our lifelines. So, for many reasons, I think it’s wrong that this project would be construed as a benefit to the environment. I do agree the property owner has a right to develop their property but a property owner does not have a right to special permits that would irreparably fragment a fragile ecosystem and upset and incur significant risk to the community. It’s also reasonable to conclude that no one should own this property with the expectation to mine and remove the ridge and open landlocked properties to development and if this is approved, in my mind, it will be a monument to things that are wrong right now. Our imbalance with nature is why we have a problem with climate change.”
Other speakers also addressed the aesthetic value of the ridge line. Numerous others also asked about responsibility should their wells be damaged. Others said blasting would be detrimental to their lives. One said her epilepsy prohibits her from being near a blasting site and said the project would force her to move her home and local business and others said their home businesses would be in jeopardy due to noise and disturbance.
Some speakers at the hearing spoke to the ridgeline and other issues while referencing the Plan of Conservation and Development, which contains specific references to the site both in terms of economic development and character.
Alan L. Weiner, a former planner in another municipality, spoke to the commission about the town’s special permit criteria and the POCD, stating the sections that stated economic development should enhance, not detract from “the character, quality and appearance of the community” and section that noted the trap rock ridge as the “defining scenic quality of this gateway.”
“I think that a very important consideration as you evaluate this application and especially the special permits associated with it,” he said.
Attorney Michael Pendell also addressed the commission on behalf of C.A.R.E.
He and commission members exchanged a few tense words about his specific land use experience and whether represented all “objectors,” Pendell spoke to the special permit considerations of the application and considerations the commission can consider, including the Plan of Conservation and Development as well as evaluative criteria that speaks to environmental protection, suitability of the land, appropriate improvements, nuisance, transportation and long-term viability. Pendell reference to cases decided by the state appellate court that he said established solid grounds for denial in this case.
“It’s clear that the commission has sufficient grounds to deny this application and should do so, he said, later adding, “Just because an area is zoned commercial does not mean the commission has to rubber stamp any developer who wants to come in and build something.”
Before closing for the evening, commissioners spent some time talking about the next hearing, whether it could be moved up or perhaps limited in scope.
Ultimately it was continued to Feb. 17 and town officials advised against trying to limit the scope of input.
While there are statutory limits on hearings, some of which have been extended due to the pandemic, Commissioner Lans Perry, however, asked for a legal opinion.
“You need to ask your counsel our counsel.. what you do in a case where one party or one side of an issue goes through dilatory moves on closing eternally because that is exactly what I perceive is going on with some of the discussion, even by the consultants and I want to know what the rights of the public and fundamental fairness demand but I'm committed to justice and fairness but I also know in a system that is set up to deliver a result for an application there has to be a methodology to deal with a filibuster so please find that out.
At the next meeting, the commission might once again have its hands full, as C.A.R.E. plans some additional steps (see below) to fight the issue and many of the developer’s consultants prepare to respond to public comments and questions.
Additionally, commissioners could potentially discuss a Jan. 21 call between the town’s land use office and Ray Frigon, Assistant Director of Remediation, at CT DEEP, facilitated with assistance from state Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw.
According to notes of the conversation an impact to the Swift site is “highly unlikely.”
Frigon told the Valley Press that the word is accurate to the conversation.
“You would have to have a long, interconnected fracture system between the Swift site pollution and the site to be developed, with a drinking water well or other pumping well directly in line with that network of fractures, to induce a cross gradient draw of the pollution through the fracture,” he said.
Frigon did tell town officials and the Valley Press that any worst case scenarios responsibility would fall to the blasting company as well as the owners of the Swift property.
“Environmental laws interpreted liberally so parties actually cause the pollution can be held responsible also those maintaining sources of pollution can also be held responsible,” he said.
Frigon did say the agency has responded to sites where improper blasting techniques have caused issues.
Those generally happen post blasting due to “liberating the naturally occurring constituents for a period of time, impacting a well.”
“Basically, you’re opening up an area that hasn’t been exposed to water and exposing this rock which may cause some mobilization of iron manganese, which can be addressed and may dissipate over time,” he said. “We’ve also experienced situation from the blasting itself, the chemical used in the blasting caps, where a blasting charge increased beyond what was really necessary, leaving residual contamination.”
Frigon said the decision is a local one but said any blasting should conform to the agency’s guidelines. He said safeguards such as setting up a radius of well monitoring to include in surveys are up to the commission and developer and not something DEEP remediation generally gets involved with.
Additionally, the commission on Feb. 17 will need to consider and additional action by CARE.
Pendell, through his firm MotleyRice, has filed a petition for intervention on behalf of the organization.
Under state law, the intervener status allows party status for a person or entity if there is a “verified pleading asserting that the proceeding or action for judicial review 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.”
In the petition, Pendell lays out a case for potential environmental impact, contends there are reasonable alternatives for modified site layout and less intensive development and includes several exhibits of case law and documents, including some from ALTA Environmental and Warzecha.
In a memo to the commission, Neil Pade, Canton’s director of Planning and Community Development, lays out the steps to consider the petition, which it will likely do near the beginning of the hearing re-opening.
(Due to the length of this article, The Valley Press will detail more about this aspect of the hearing in a follow-up piece, likely after the next meeting).
It is also not too late for the public to comment on this proposed development. Those wishing to provide comments for the record can email them to NPade@TownofCantonCT.org.
Commission members have encouraged the public to submit any comments at least 10 days before the next meeting to facilitate a complete public record. For those who want to review any late updates from the developer, town staff is encouraging people to submit those comments by Feb. 11.
Those wishing to access the meeting packets for upcoming or past meetings can visit https://townofcantonct.org/agendas-minutes-meetings.
See below for a small selection of maps, renderings and other materials submitted with the application.