• jfitts0

Those behind development tout 'vision' for electric vehicle infrastructure

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

Critics say green energy should not come with destruction of natural resources; hearing continued to Jan. 19


By John Fitts

Editor

CANTON – Those looking to bring an electric vehicle showroom, fueling station and related development to 9-15 Albany Turnpike have touted the project as “the future of transportation,” while emphasizing it a place where people could see some of the latest alternative transportation choices, charge their own electric vehicles, stop in for service or pick up a meal, coffee or ice cream and relax in a comfortable seating area.

They’ve also talked about clean energy features and gas pumps that are designed to convert to electric vehicle charging stations.

At a virtual meeting of the Canton Planning and Zoning Commission on Dec. 16, that development team looked to take its pitch further by emphasizing the involvement of Canton residents and introducing the person behind the idea.

“Part of my vision is creating the infrastructure in Connecticut that will allow the faster transition from gas powered vehicles to electric vehicles,” said Michael Frisbie, owner of Noble Gas, Inc.

Frisbie spoke to the commission for the first time that evening and said he had researched the technology for quite some time and wanted to develop the infrastructure from the ground up, a primary reason for picking the site over an abandoned gas station or other available properties.

He said as an independent company, Noble could be much more flexible than well-known fueling businesses.

“There is a dramatic need for the car manufacturers to bring their product to a market like Connecticut, where the end users have the means and the ability but can also can get around and I believe the car manufactures are excited about my program because they’re going to bring their vehicles to a market that actually has the DC fast chargers in it and the infrastructure that is supported by Noble Gas,” he said.

Specifically, the owners of 9-15 Albany Turnpike, LLC., managed by developer Mark Greenberg, have proposed:

• 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. People would not purchase the vehicles on site, developers have said.

• An 8,384-square-foot foot gas station/convenience store, designed ny MDA Architecture Braintree, Mass., that would include a deli, ice cream shop and coffee shop with drive through.

A traffic light is proposed as part of the project, at the eastern end of Brass Lantern Road and while that would not align with Old Albany Turnpike, the development team said it would also provide access to the former La Trattoria property should that be redeveloped in the future.

The Simsbury Planning and Zoning Commission has given its stamp of approval on the project, but while much of the 26 acres is in Simsbury, most of this construction would be in Canton.

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 now governs the site became effective after the application was filed.

The application requests a number of special permits, 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 proposal has generated a fair amount of controversy.

The town’s Conservation Commission has voiced its opposition to blasting a portion of the trap rock ridge location at the site and the Economic Development Commission has expressed mixed feelings about the project.

The Farmington River Watershed Association has also written expressing concerns about blasting, advocating environmental and species surveys and urging ridge protection.

“This beautiful basalt outcropping has stood as the iconic gateway to Canton forever. In the words of the town of Canton POCD ‘An existing trap rock ridge towards the east side of this district (near the Town Line) is a defining scenic quality of this gateway,’” the letter states. “It is in the best interest of the town of Canton and the beautiful Farmington Valley to protect this geologic and cultural landmark. Let us continue to be defined by our natural scenic beauty, from rock to river.”

Residents have also weighed in with some writing in support and many raising concerns about features such as traffic, design, the ridge, the scope and potential effects of blasting and scale of the project.

In a letter to the commission, former Canton First Selectman and Board of Finance Member Mary Tomolonius detailed several sections of the regulations she said could apply to the special permits and wrote in her introduction, “The noise pollution, air pollution, potential water contamination, and increased truck traffic will negatively impact residents’ quality of life. If the project is built as proposed, the town will end up with an eyesore, that is an anathema to enhancing and sustaining the vitality of Canton. The development’s projected amount of tax revenue generated, about $103,000, when compared to what the residents and small business owners of Canton will give up, will not build and sustain economic vitality. The design of the car showroom/dealership would not only look like Las Vegas had come to Canton; it would send the wrong message to other would-be businesses and developers. When the CVS wanted to open in Canton, the Planning & Zoning Commission did not accept the first or second design, but held out for a design more in keeping with the other buildings in town.”

The commission and town staff have also raised questions and a portion of the Dec. 16 was spent of those concerns, including elevations, lighting, landscaping and more. The commission and Solli also discussed observations from a Dec. 5 site walk of the property.

While commission chairman Jonathan Thiesse has made it clear that a decision must be made based on the commission’s regulations and not aspects such as the marketplace, other available properties or residency, but the development team did take some time in the latest meeting to address some of factors.

Attorney David Markowitz, partner, Hassett & George, P.C.. who is representing the developer, took time at the beginning of the meeting to address the many residents who have objected to an “out of town developer.” He acknowledged Greenberg was looking to make money on the project, but said it was also important to Betty Fiora who remains a limited partner and who grew up in the house on the property and whose family farmed the land and started the restaurant that pre-dated La Trattoria, located next door to the parcel.

Markowitz, who also lives in Canton, said it is also important to Frank Zacchera, who owns a “landlocked” parcel the developers of 9-15 Albany Turnpike are hoping to purchase to include in future housing development plans.

“I want people to know it is not just Mark Greenberg,” Markowitz said. “There are Canton residents who believe this is really important to their future and to their families.”

In speaking to the commission Dec. 16 Kevin Solli, principal of Solli Engineering again emphasized the “future of transportation” theme, as he has in previous meetings.

“We’re trying to take sustainable long term investment in the town of Canton in the community to create something that’s going to really be a showpiece not only for the community, but also for the region and the state itself.”

In introducing Frisbie, Solli noted that a 2019 Connecticut Main Street Center award that Noble Gas (along with Crosskey Architects) garnered for a mixed-use development in Hartford that includes a station and convenience store with apartments.

While Frisbie touted the Canton project and the “higher level” food offerings and convenience features the project would offer, he also noted his research in the EV industry, work with charging companies, plans to establish an education component and said he hopes the project would propel both residential and business fleet EV use. He also reiterated the theme that the showroom would serve as an “Apple store” type of template for other facilities.

“I know the EV showroom is a little out-of-the-box thinking, but I think it’s something that I hope you would be proud of as much as much as I'm going to be proud to bring it to Canton,” he said.

Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Jonathan Thiesse said it was good to hear from the person looking to run the facility.

“I will say it is good, for me at least, to hear that there is a definitive vision I guess, for the EV showroom from that standpoint. One of the concerns I think the commission and any commission has when you have a project that’s proposing to remove this much material, this much rock, is that someone’s coming to us with a project that essentially a mining project disguised as a development and this gives me a little more comfort that that’s not what we’re looking at here,”

But the EV showroom design continued to be a topic of discussion as It has been in the past.

Neil Pade, the town’s director of Planning and Community Development, noted that he had indeed met Frisbie when Canton was getting its Main Street award for a form-based code and said the Hartford project was innovative and involved something many said wouldn’t work and yet did.

Pade, however, noted that the development team chose to file its application before the form based code took effect.

“What’s just very difficult, I think, for some of the commissioners to reconcile is that this proposal was submitted more or less to beat the deadline of the effective date of those regulations, that would have allowed for a more efficient process, but provided additional character protections. To date in the hearing record we’ve gotten so for we’ve gotten a substantial amount of testimony, which I would call negative feedback on the design of the building and it’s a design that really just wouldn’t otherwise be allowed under the rules that are in place now today, should this have come in a week or two later . ..Clearly, we’re getting the message that our EDA would be really appreciative of, that a developer like Mr. Frisbie is interested in our community’s market. Is there an ability to work within the character ideals of the community to perhaps make changes to that building or is that something that it’s design and function, that him [the developer] is really married to?” Frisbie noted that the building “works perfectly” for the use, and said he had heard suggestions from previous meetings but felt some like “futuristic New England” weren’t specific enough.

“If I knew what the direction was for future New England, I could get a better handle on that.”

Solli also discussed many aspects of the project with the commission, including some of those technical details, lot line revisions, a proposal for landscaping waivers and other details.

He also briefly discussed a hydrogeology report from WSP USA of Shelton. The blasting aspect of the project has generated numerous concerns and, according the WSP report, the development would involve blasting to remove “118,450 cy (cubic yards) of bedrock from approximately 3.4 acres.” In all, the project narrative notes that the total net export form the site would be 139,741 cubic yards and material and developers have proposed allotted removal of material for 6 days a week but contend that the work would be incremental, not constant.

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,” the application states.

Developers have touted preblast surveys, specialized equipment and modern methods for such work and while the commission does control some aspects of earthwork removal and can consider aspects health, safety and environmental impact in special permits, blasting permits are not specifically under its purview.

“Because a Blasting Permit may be necessary to achieve a grading plan does not give the Commission full jurisdiction over blasting,” Pade wrote in a staff report. “However, in consultation with the Fire Marshal and the authorizing statues, it seems that the Commission has the ability to substantially condition an earthwork permit that will result in blasting but cannot necessarily make a determination on whether blasting will or will not be allowed.”

The developers have also expressed their willingness to accept special conditions set by the commission, but still questions have lingered.

Many residents have expressed concern with noise, duration of up to two years, and potential impacts to area wells and more. Many have also expressed concern about the state superfund site at 51 Albany Turnpike and Connecticut Water has expressed concerns about an area in an aquifer recharge for one of its wells and the MDC has said it’s “very concerned” about the “duration and proximity” of the blasting in relation to its water main in Route 44.

William Warzecha, retired state DEEP geologist, wrote to the commission, stating his view that the traprock is an important feature.

“You should know that the traprock ridge comprising the area is a unique and very important geologic feature to Canton. It comprises the western limits of a north-south trending traprock ridge known as Onion Mountain, part of which has been previously preserved by The Nature Conservancy. The two sets of basalt ridges bisecting the state are important natural areas and considered critical habitat by botanists and ecologists. The dolerite ridges provide habitat for flora and fauna that are rare elsewhere in the state, that is the reason that the Conservancy took steps many years ago to preserve the traprock ridgelines, one of which is Onion Mountain.”

During the meeting, commission member Lans Perry said as a certified professional forester he noted nothing unusual during the site walk that covered some of the area that would house the development, including the site of the Canton town sign and an old access road that leads up to a flat area where one can see the Hoffman dealerships and other development in Simsbury.

“My professional judgement was that it was nothing out of the ordinary because there was enough till that it seemed to be a typical forest that I would anticipate to see in a number of different places, which eased my mind a bit.”

As agreed to in a previous meeting, the development team hired WSP of Shelton to generate a report and allow the town’s consultant at the developer’s cost, to review it. However, the team acknowledged that the WSP document had come in just prior to the meeting (Dec. 15) and that the town’s firm, GZA Geo Environmental, had not yet reviewed the work. In light of that, the developer requested the hearing be continued to January, which will be the fourth evening of a public hearing.

“We’re expecting to have a little more robust conversation on this topic in January,” said Solli, who contends the development was designed to minimize disturbance and enhance the rock feature.

He also gave a brief overview of the report, which, for example said the Swift site, which is 1,500 to the west is “outside of the likely radius of influence from blasting” due to factors such as “a separate subregional and local drainage basin.” And the nature and location of the contaminate plume.

“We believe that our proposed activity can take place without any adverse impact to any of the surrounding wells or properties and I think our hydrogeology report was able to do some additional research on that and come to the same conclusions and reach that same verification,” Solli said.

Solli said the team had not reviewed MDC’s concerns but said they were aware of the infrastructure and said blasting near utilities in not uncommon.

The commission does anticipate that its consultant will review the plans before the next hearing date.

The meeting also involved some questions to the public, which in addition to design, included some about retaining walls, techniques to minimize dust and other disturbance during blasting, public safety and services, project scope, traffic, viability and more.

Theresa Sullivan Barger asked several questions, including pressing Frisbie on the design.

“The people in Canton think this building doesn’t look like it fits into Canton and do you feel you can build an EV showroom that looks more suitable to Canton, not like it comes out of 'The Jetsons'?”

Later, during allotted for answers to questions from the public, Frisbie expanded on his viewpoint

“I’d be willing to work with the town if we knew the use was approved to be able to come up with something a little bit different on the style of the building if we get the same – I guess spirit – and what I mean by that is I still want it to be a showroom. I don’t want it to be a brick building where you can’t see in. That defeats the purpose in my mind but I think we could use some different finishes and maybe massage that building a little bit to help support what you’re looking for. We just wanted a little more direction.”

Sarah Faulkner also asked several questions and asked that the commission take a hard look at the retaining walls in the project and stick to its regulations and not allow the requested waivers.

“I’m worried about hydrologic pressure of a big wall. [The regulations] are there for a reason,” she said. “I think these are substantially bigger than what our regulations call for.”

Other questions centered around traffic and Solli said he felt the traffic light would actually improve safety in the area.

Frisbie also defended the 20 pumps and size of the project, which some have called out of scale for the area.

“We’re building for the peak times and also allowing for future growth,” she said.

The commission will next meet on Tuesday, Jan. 19, a day earlier than it normally would due to the town’s annual meeting.

That evening the commission will also hold a public hearing for 91 and 95 Albany Turnpike on which Mitchell Farmington Valley is 7.84 acres in total to develop an automobile dealership Center.

The plan calls for the demolition of two buildings, use of an existing building for a detail center, a Chrysler dealership in another existing building (the old Land Rover) and a new 34,190 square foot Subaru dealership.

Most of the project falls under the town’s form based code for the East Design Village District, but the public hearing will center around special permit for aspects such as outdoor and storage and earthwork and grading, which would include 12,000 cubic yards of “cut” - 5,500 Cubic yards on site used for on-site fill, 6,500 cubic yards of exported material and 5,400 cubic yards of material brought to the site. The project has already been through the town’s Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency

Closer to the January date, residents will be able to find the agenda and packet for the next meeting through the drop-down menus at

http://townofcantonct.org/agendas-minutes-meetings

Additionally, residents can find the Dec. 16 meeting packet, which includes hundreds of pages related to the proposals.

Those wishing to provide comments for the record can email them to NPade@TownofCantonCT.org.

Below are some renderings of the proposed development at 9-15 Albany Turnpike.