With Groton jobs growth, developers eye Gold Star Highway for apartments
Groton — Developers are proposing an approximately 300-unit apartment community on four properties on Gold Star Highway, including two parcels currently owned by the town.
The Town Council this week authorized the town manager to sign an option agreement with PJ&A LLC of Uncasville, which wants to buy the two town-owned properties, comprising 11.75 acres in total, at 517 and 529 Gold Star Highway. Town Manager John Burt said Friday he expects to soon sign the option agreement.
PJ&A would develop a multifamily housing community with at least 300 apartments on those two properties and two others it owns to the east at 553 and 571 Gold Star Highway, according to the option to purchase agreement. The four properties encompass more than 17 acres overall.
The proposed apartment community would be a partnership of LeCesse Development Corporation, based in Florida, and Kaali-Nagy Properties, based in Connecticut, according to town documents.
With the ramp-up in hiring at Electric Boat, Groton, like other communities in the region, needs newer apartments, said Assistant Planning Director Deb Jones. The apartments would be market-rate.
The plans currently are conceptual. Burt said the developers will have to return to the Town Council to gain approval on the plans when they are fleshed out.
The developers also will need site plan approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission and may need a wetlands permit, Jones said.
The developers are expected to do their due diligence, including obtaining permitting approvals and doing utility work, land development and preparation work, said Paige Bronk, the town's economic and community development manager.
“When they are ready, then they will close on the property,” Bronk said.
The option to purchase agreement for 517 and 529 Gold Star Highway is for an initial one-year period but may be extended, the agreement states. The option price of $16,000 can be applied toward the $228,000 purchase price if the option is exercised within the one-year period or within six months of an extended option period, according to the document.
PJ&A LLC had no official comment at this time. LeCesse Development Corporation and Kaali-Nagy Properties could not immediately be reached for comment.
In 2016, the town had issued a request for proposals for the two town-owned undeveloped properties on Gold Star Highway. The town had foreclosed on the properties for past-due taxes, said Jon Reiner, director of planning and development services for the town.
Groton has been marketing its excess properties — from vacant former school buildings to foreclosed properties — as redevelopment opportunities, rather than simply as real-estate transactions, Reiner and Bronk have said.
The Town Council approved last month a letter of intent with ThayerMahan for another of the town's excess properties, the former Groton Heights School, with the closing expected this fall, Bronk said. As ThayerMahan grows and projects an additional 40 jobs in the next two years, the company plans to redevelop the 27,185-square-foot Groton Heights School building at 244 Monument St. in the city to accommodate its expansion and hopes to open the new facility next year, ThayerMahan Chief Operating Officer Richard J. Hine has said. The company also will keep its existing facility on Leonard Drive.
Greens Harbor work hits cost overruns but nears completion
New London — The city has asked the state for an additional $1.8 million to cover cost overruns at a massive ongoing drainage and park improvement project on Pequot Avenue.
The project that started in December at Greens Harbor Beach was supposed to cost an estimated $1.97 million, with federal funds covering nearly $1.5 million. The city bonded $493,625 for the project.
The city has added work to improve and expand usable space at Greens Harbor Park and contractors have run into some unforeseen expenses during excavation work, Public Works Director Brian Sear said.
Despite the delays and added costs, the project continues to move forward and is closer to completion. Sear estimates it will be “a couple of months” before the work is done and the roadway cleaned up, repaved and completely reopened.
The aim of the initial project, first approved by the state in 2016 as part of the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program, was to correct historic flooding in the roadway and reconstruct the drainage system that spills stormwater into Greens Harbor Beach.
Sear said the city quickly realized the scope of work needed to be expanded to account for water draining into the park and roadway from a 60-acre watershed area, spanning as far as the parking lot at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. Water has traditionally flooded Pequot Avenue, kept portions of the park wet and carried sediment and contamination into the harbor, leading to swimming bans at the beach.
The city engineered more drainage in the park and added a multi-stage collection and filtration system expected to improve water quality and expand the area of the park. A handicapped-access area was added. The area was graded and concrete slabs added for picnic tables.
Cost overruns, Sear said, are partially associated with the amount of rock encountered during excavation and the discovery that pressurized sewer mains were deeper than expected. The depth of the pipes forced the hiring of contractors to shore up the holes and necessitated blasting and hand-digging in places. Contractors also replaced some older sewer lines.
“It turned out to be a very big deal,” Sear said.
Early on, instead of a complete shutdown and detour around the area, Sear said contractors were forced to construct a bypass road in the park. The city was notified that the railroad overpasses where vehicles were being detoured are too low to permit access of some delivery trucks and emergency vehicles to Fort Trumbull. Contractors were not allowed to completely close off Pequot Avenue for the entire project.
At least one of the subcontractors working on the project was removed after Sear said the company was not paying employees. Sear said it was a minor hiccup that did not cause any significant delay in the ongoing work. Colonna Concrete was hired by the city for the overall work and has completed a host of other projects for the city, including sidewalks and the municipal parking lot.
The initial grant money comes by way of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The city has appealed to the state Department of Housing for the $1.8 million. The city has yet to receive an answer to its Aug. 2 request but Sear is hopeful and says Greens Harbor is the city's only free public beach and serves many low-income families.
Sear called the beach area a “really valuable city asset that will be improved, expanded, safer when the project is completed." He said there is already anecdotal evidence that the Greens Harbor Beach is cleaner based on the amount of beach closures by Ledge Light Health District — just one this season so far. However, Ledge Light did not have data immediately available to determine any changes in the water quality at the beach.
The city worked with its Recreation Department and New England Science and Sailing to make arrangements to “keep as much of the beach open as was practically safe.”
The work has been detrimental to business for at least one restaurant owner. Ozzie Ozkan, owner of Sellfish Restaurant at 260 Pequot Ave., said the project “ruined the entire season.”
In his second year running the restaurant adjacent to Thamesport Marina, Ozkan said he hears constant complaints from customers about the roundabout trek to his area of Pequot Avenue. The stretch includes On the Waterfront — a dining hot spot that was closed by the owner last week due to structural concerns with the building — and Fred's Shanty.
Ozkan said his business is additionally taking a hit from the closing of On the Waterfront because it brought so many tourists and out-of-towners to the area. He was capturing some of the spillover business.
“Since he closed, this entire strip is quiet,” Ozkan said. “There used to be a fight for parking and suddenly, nothing.”
Ozkan remains the only place serving food and alcohol along that stretch of Pequot Avenue and plans to keep his restaurant open year-round, in part to help recoup some of his losses. He’s also hoping to reopen the former Steaks 'N’ Spuds, adjacent to the restaurant, as a breakfast and lunch joint.
Sear said he expects city residents and business owners alike will be pleased with the end result of the work.
“We’re getting into the home stretch,” Sear said.
Old Lyme residents to vote on proposed sewer system Tuesday
Old Lyme — After years of studies and planning by town officials and members of the Water Pollution Control Authority, residents will finally have their say at a referendum Tuesday as to whether the town should move forward with a proposed $9.44 million project to bring a shared community sewer system into the Sound View neighborhood.
The town is under an administrative order from the state to complete the project, which outlines installing a gravity-fed sewer system within the Sound View neighborhood and a neighborhood north of Route 156, known as Miscellaneous Town Area B, by connecting to New London’s wastewater treatment facility.
The project, should it pass, also is set to combine with another separate and ongoing project among the Miami Beach Association, Old Lyme Shores Beach Association and Old Colony Beach Club Association — all of which are chartered beach neighborhoods and considered separate municipalities from the town — by sharing one pump station and one force main.
The town would need to bond $9.44 million for the project, but future ratepayers in those neighborhoods, not town taxpayers, are expected to pay back an estimated $7.44 million over 20 years at a 2 percent interest rate. Town officials have said the town is in line for earmarked federal-state Clean Water Fund bonds and grants that would help pay for “25 percent of eligible project costs,” bringing the cost of the project down to $7.44 million.
According to Sound View Commission Chairman Frank Pappalardo, however, "a large majority" of Sound View residents feel that paying for the entirety of the project is "unfair" and that the project should be financed by all taxpayers, comparing the project to paying into the school system, or the way that everyone pays into financing a needed bridge. He said that Sound View residents are looking into filing a lawsuit against the town, should the referendum pass, despite the town being under a state order to complete the project.
Besides voicing their opposition in years past, according to Pappalardo, more and more Sound View residents have tried to have their opinions heard as of late, including at a question-and-answer session hosted by the WPCA in July, as well as at a Special Town Meeting on Monday, in an effort to dissuade the town from proceeding further.
Pappalardo said that at Monday's meeting, some Sound View residents, dissatisfied with answers received to questions asked about the financing of the sewer project, tried to vote down a $328,500 allocation the town needed to proceed with replacing a bridge on Mile Creek Road — an entirely different project with no relation to the sewer project. The allocation passed, but the event signified a deeper divide between the beach community and the rest of town, Pappalardo said.
“I hate this polarization of the us-versus-them, and that just gets us absolutely nowhere and we need to figure out how to fix this,” Pappalardo said. He added that some of the people own multiple properties in the neighborhood and are faced with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.
WPCA Chair Rich Prendergast said that expecting ratepayers to pay for a sewer system that will service their homes is standard practice and that the town — which includes town officials and taxpayers — would never sign off on bonding millions for the project, despite it being a necessity, unless ratepayers are held responsible.
According to a charging formula that the WPCA passed in its June meeting, each equivalent dwelling unit, or a median-sized home, in Sound View and the Miscellaneous Town Area B will pay an estimated $31,007 to cover the project's capital costs. Homeowners could pay that amount, which comprises a betterment fee and a facility connection fee, in a full one-time payment, or they could finance it over 20 years, which equates to two payments of $944 per year, Prendergast has said.
Annually, homeowners also would pay an estimated $430 operations and maintenance fee.
In addition to the capital cost and the annual maintenance fee, homeowners also would be responsible for the plumbing cost to install the line from the house to the curb. According to WPCA presentations detailing the project, each foot of piping could cost between $50 and $100.
Emphasizing the need to pass the resolution this year, Prendergast has said that the town should seek to follow the state’s administrative order to install a sewer system, and that if it does not, the state may take away Clean Water funds earmarked for the town and may start levying fines.
The project has gone through a range of variations since town officials started pursuing it in 2014, including a plan to install an independent sewer system to service beach neighborhoods, as they sought an affordable and efficient solution to address groundwater pollution in the Sound View area. The neighborhood always has relied on cesspools and septic tanks to process its sewage.
Should the referendum fail, Prendergast has said that it would only delay the project and that another referendum would be necessary in another year. If that happens, the price of the project would go up, he and other town officials have said. “We could possibly modify the project in some way to fix what people objected to and that would change the cost, but no one should think, 'Well, let's just vote it down and that will lower the cost.' That's irresponsible," Prendergast has said.
The referendum will be held from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Aug. 13 at the Cross Lane Fire Station, 22 Cross Lane.
Path of unpopular toll proposal maps out opposition
Anyone wondering why highway tolls are so bogged down in the state legislature only need break out a road map of Connecticut.
Trace the routes of the four targeted highways – Interstate 84, Interstate 91, Interstate 95, and the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways.
Count the cities and towns, and you’ll find the proposed toll roads traverse 59 out of this small, densely packed state’s 169 municipalities.
Then, overlay legislative district maps on that highway map, and the political challenges for toll advocates are plainer to see.
The cities and towns that are directly along the three interstates and one state highway are divided among 110 House districts and 33 Senate districts. To put this in perspective, there are 151 House seats and 36 Senate seats, and House districts average 23,670 people and Senate districts average 99,280 people.
Not all the House and Senate districts encompass the highways, but commuters and businesses from other districts in the same communities rely on the highways, and so do highway users from one or two towns removed.
That all adds up to a lot of potentially affected voters, and the available public opinion polling indicates highway tolls are highly unpopular with the voting public.
THE POLITICAL GEOGRAPHY explains much of why tolls are stuck to Rep. Chris Davis, R-East Windsor, the ranking House Republican on the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.
“So many communities would be impacted by tolls, every single community essentially,” Davis said. “Even if you represent a district that doesn’t necessarily have one of these four major highways going through it your constituents are using those highways on a regular basis, and the businesses and employers based in your district are using them on a daily basis.”
Joseph Sculley, the president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut, agreed that some legislators representing cities and towns along the proposed toll roads are wary of the political repercussions of supporting tolls.
“Definitely, there are people are afraid of tolls, for lack of a better word, because of the districts they represent, but I also think it is just a statewide issue,” he said.
Sculley said even legislators representing rural districts far removed from the targeted highways understand tolls will end up costing their constituents more one way or another.
“I haven’t heard anyone saying whether directly or indirectly that they are OK with tolls because it doesn’t hit their district. I know of districts that would not be hit, and their legislators are still opposed,” he said.
HIGHWAY TOLLS ARE TIED UP because despite having House and Senate majorities Democrats have been unable to pass a tolling bill in the face of internal divisions and unrelenting Republican opposition.
Passing legislation takes 76 votes in the House and 19 votes in the Senate, or 18 votes, plus the tie-breaking votes of Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz. It just so happens that Democrats hold 76 of the 110 of the House districts along the proposed toll roads and 20 of the 33 Senate districts.
To date, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, and Senate President Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, have been stymied in forging a Democratic majority or bipartisan majority to pass any tolling plan, and Gov. Ned Lamont has been, too.
There are doubts anything will happen before the 2020 election after the failure to get a tolling bill approved in the 2019 session. The governor has announced he plans to recall the legislature to vote on tolls this year, but has yet to call for such a special session.
Meanwhile, Lamont said he and top aides are continuing to talk to legislative leaders individually and appeal to individual legislators. These efforts have produced no visible progress.
“I think there are ongoing quiet conversations going forward,” Lamont said. “People know we can’t put all this on the state credit card. That has the potential to put our fiscal standing at risk, so we’re trying to find a compromise.”
House and Senate Republicans are proposing to rely on a combination of state bonding and federal funding to finance transportation projects.
Lamont has floated incentives, offered scaled back tolling plans, and proposed more borrowing to try win over reluctant Democrats and Republicans without success.
“I don’t see any movement on the Republican side of things toward the direction of any type of tolling,” Davis said.
MORE THAN GEOGRAPHICAL PROXIMITY, Aresimowicz said the lack of a solid tolling plan and public support are why the legislature is stalled.
“The discussion thus far has not really centered around individuals’ districts,” he said.
Aresimowicz said House Democrats want details on toll rates and discounts, the number of tolls, and toll locations, and many have been clear they only want to vote once if they are going to vote for tolls. He also said they want a guarantee of Senate approval before they vote first.
Public opinion is a bigger concern for legislators than proximity to proposed toll roads, Aresimowicz said. Two polls from Sacred Heart University’s Institute for Public Policy in March and May each found 60% of state residents oppose tolls.
“I think it is more the public’s perception, the public’s trust that influences legislators as opposed to the geographics of it,” he said.
Yet, Aresimowicz also conceded that how close people live to the proposed toll roads and how often people use them helps frame public opinion.
“I think there are some people who are unrealistic and deny the fact there is a highway crisis, and they say, well, just continue what we are doing, and I think those people won’t be convinced until we have a Mianus bridge-type disaster, but for others they just are not convinced we need to enact broad-based tolling,” Looney said.
In 1983, a 100-foot-long section of Interstate 95 collapsed into the Mianus River in Greenwich, killing three people and seriously injuring three others. The incident led to the creation of the Special Transportation Fund.
Looney said he believes a more limited tolling plan under consideration now that targets bridges only might be an acceptable compromise.
Davis said he hears over and over again from his constituents that they do not trust pledges to limit tolls to trucks, or certain bridges in need of repairs, or specified highway projects.
“Once we allow one tolling gantry to go in, it is only a matter of time until the state of Connecticut reaches into their pockets and puts up more toll gantries for more reasons and more purposes,” he said. “Once we open the door, the people of Connecticut are very afraid it will be endless at that point.”