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CT Construction Digest Monday July 25, 2022

Federal funding may unclog Old Lyme sewer project

Carrie Czerwinski

Old Lyme — News of potential aid from the federal government may mean a long overdue sewer and stormwater project in Old Lyme can finally move forward.

In May, Connecticut’s U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both Democrats, requested $11.2 million for the project, covering 990 homes in the private beach neighborhoods of Old Colony Beach, Old Lyme Shores Beach and Miami Beach, as well as the town’s Sound View Beach, in the fiscal year 2023 federal budget, currently in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In a statement provided via email through his Hartford office on Wednesday, Blumenthal said, “I endorsed this project for federal funding because it is important to the Old Lyme Community and would help reduce pollution in Long Island Sound. My office was proud to submit a request for this project to receive congressionally directed spending.”

“But I understand many applications from Connecticut and other states will be assessed by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which will have to make difficult choices within its budgetary limits,” he added. “I anticipate those decisions to be made later this summer.”

If approved by the committee and Congress, the town could receive the money by next June.

The project was approved in 2019 to connect the neighborhoods, which currently use septic systems, to sewer systems to mitigate pollution to Long Island Sound. The associations governing Old Colony Beach, Old Lyme Shores Beach and Miami Beach, which are chartered neighborhoods and considered their own municipalities, approved the project at separate referendums. The public Sound View Beach came on after a townwide vote.

The project stalled after higher-than-expected bids, due in part to supply chain issues, raised the project cost to $55.6 million — an almost 30% increase over the originally estimated $43.5 million.

Old Colony Beach Club Association President Doug Whalen, reached by phone Monday, said, “this program is vital to remove a lot of the nitrogen out of Long Island Sound, which is polluting Long Island Sound, and that’s really our goal.”

He went on to say, “all the people in our communities, basically they want to have clean water that they want to swim in.”

“We are shovel-ready, and we’ve just been trying to get the right number because we exceeded all of our bonds that we pulled out for all of these projects,” Whalen said. “We couldn’t go forward with anything, and now, all of a sudden, with (federal funding), we should be able to get over the edge and move this project forward.”

Richard Prendergast, chairman of the Old Lyme Water Pollution Control Authority, agreed. “If we get that money, we can start building,” he said by phone Wednesday. “The 11 months it’s going to take to do the construction of the shared infrastructure — we start that immediately.”

The planned system for the four beach communities revolves around a shared pump station — to be located in the Sound View neighborhood — as well as a force main pipe, enabling all four entities to send their sewage, through East Lyme and Waterford, to New London for treatment.

Assuming the federal grant money comes through, Whalen said, “our goal is to get a shovel in the ground by 2023 and have sewers flowing in 2025.”

When asked what would happen if the money does not come through, Prendergast said, “if we don’t get the funding, we would approach the state and say ‘this is not economically feasible,’” and postpone the project until additional funding can be found. “They know we’re trying. They know that two years earlier, pre-COVID, we wouldn’t have had this problem,” he said.

Officials from the town and beach communities will hold a public meeting at 10 a.m. on Aug. 27 at Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School at 49 Lyme St., Old Lyme, to update residents on the status of the project, including projected costs and what improvements are planned.

Glastonbury P&Z approves plan to build 74-unit apartment building

Robert Storace

The Glastonbury Town Plan & Zoning Commission finalized a developer’s proposal Tuesday to build a 74-unit apartment building that could be occupied in early 2024.

The commission voted 4-2 to approve the application during a nearly four-hour meeting.

Developer Richard Hayes, principal of Manchester/Hebron Avenue LLC, will build the multifamily units. The property, on Manchester Road and Hebron Avenue, is across the street from Buckingham Park. The complex will be known as Buckingham Corners.

Hinckley Allen partner Timothy Hollister and associate Andrea Gomes represent Hayes.

Hollister previously told the Hartford Business Journal that, if all goes as planned, construction could start in the fall and would take about 18 months. Occupancy could begin in early 2024, he said.

Hollister also said that 70% of the units will go for the market share rate while the other 30% will be for moderate-income households. There will be 85 parking spaces, he said.

Kendra Baker

BETHEL — A developer looks to create a “new neighborhood” on Diamond Avenue that not only attracts and benefits people from in and out of town, but helps the town achieve its transit-oriented development goals.

“I think it’s going to be phenomenal,” Adriano Echavarria said about his vision of an energy efficient, aesthetically timeless, multi-dwelling development at 9 and 11 Diamond Ave. — the concept plan for which he presented to the Planning and Zoning Commission last Tuesday.

On the 12.6 acres of Diamond Avenue land, Echavarria proposes constructing four, four-story rental residential apartment buildings to the northwest, two rows of townhouses, and two, three-story buildings with lower-level retail space on the southern end, facing Diamond Avenue.

One of the three-story buildings would feature self-storage on the second and third floors, while the upper levels of the other would have about 25 residential apartments for rent.

Echavarria said most of the residential units on the site would be for rent, but the townhouses would be for ownership.

“If you just make everything rental, it becomes very transitory and can be challenging to manage,” he said. “If you bring in permanent housing, it becomes a much more diversified neighborhood.”

The proposal calls for two rows of eight townhouses with 25-foot frontages, separated by what Echavarria describes as “a public park within a private area.”

Echavarria said he’s open to modifications but the current proposal is to have a total of fewer than 200 one- and two-bedroom residential rentals on the site — 150 to 170 of which would be in the four-story apartment buildings.

He also noted that affordable housing is a priority, and he plans to exceed the 20 percent affordable housing required in Bethel’s transit-oriented development zone, also known as the TOD zone.

In addition to a mix of retail and residential development, Echavarria’s proposal calls for lots of green space and a focus on sustainability and creativity.

“We are trying to bring in the most progressive, green affordable housing project seen in not only the town of Bethel, but the entire state of Connecticut,” he said, noting that one of his goals is to construct buildings that are not only timeless in appearance, but energy efficient.

“Energy efficiency and going green are at the center of everything from an infrastructure perspective,” Echavarria said.

In addition to proposing rooftop green space and solar panels on the buildings, Echavarria’s plan calls for a nature walk on 3.5 acres of wetland area in the northeast section of 9 Diamond Ave, which is off of Bethel’s main downtown road, Greenwood Avenue.

There is also a big focus on creative expression.

“When I think about Bethel, I think of music and arts,” said Echavarria, who sees Diamond Avenue becoming a destination or center for music and arts, as well as food.

“There would be an art gallery in the middle, conveniently located for art studio workshops that we would create for local artists in Bethel,” he said, adding that his goal would be to offer studio spaces to artists at as low a rental rate “as humanly possible.”

Echavarria said his proposal isn’t just about creating a mixed-use community, but one that achieves the four key pillars of Bethel’s TOD master plan — urban design and zoning, economic development, transportation, and affordable housing construction.

“We want to take Diamond Avenue … into the forefront of what the TOD is all about,” he said.

Among the strategic goals of Bethel’s TOD master plan is the construction of a pedestrian bridge connecting the east side of Bethel’s train station to the west side of the tracks — and that, Echavarria said, “is the anchor of how we take these parcels and bring them into the fold.”

He is not proposing to build the bridge as part of his proposed development, but to provide the land for the town to use for its construction.

Echavarria said the bridge would help drive foot traffic, and he made sure to provide enough flexibility, utility and space in his Diamond Avenue plans to incorporate its construction.

“From an engineering perspective, it’s achievable,” he said.

The bridge would not only benefit locals, Echavarria said, but help attract out-of-town visitors.

“I envision kids from WestConn wanting to jump on a train and come to the new neighborhood,” he said. “This will serve not only Bethel residents going to Stamford or New York, but people from all towns and make this the destination.”

While Echavarria’s proposal received positive reviews from several commissioners — some saying it has the potential to be one of Bethel’s “best” developments — one expressed concern about its city-like appearance.

“It has an urban design and Bethel is not urban, so we’re talking about literally turning Bethel into Danbury,” the commissioner said.

Echavarria said he understands the concern but doesn’t see it that way, and noted that Bethel’s TOD master plan calls for urban design and zoning.

“It’s not that the town would be converting into the new Danbury,” he said. “It’s about revitalizing Diamond into a multi-use community (with) green space, a nature walk, retail, commercial and townhomes.”

Danbury-area attorney Neil Marcus agreed with Echavarria, saying the proposal is more similar to development taking place in downtown Ridgefield.

“What Bethel is turning into, quite honestly, is actually the new Ridgefield — not the new Danbury,” he said.

With conceptual plans being the first phase of his proposed multi-phase project, Echavarria said his next move will be to request a zone change to turn the Diamond Avenue properties from industrial to residential.

“I want to start phase two right away,” he said. “I’d love to (break) ground by the beginning of next summer, which means we’ve got to have a site plan submitted probably by November or December.”

Echavarria said he wants to work with local leaders and community members to not only bring his proposed “new neighborhood” to Diamond Avenue, but help Bethel achieve its transit-oriented development goals.

“The TOD is important. The opportunity that Bethel has is amazing, and we can bring this to a new level,” he said.

Is Bridgeport’s Congress St. Bridge finally getting replaced?

Brian Lockhart

BRIDGEPORT — In January 2019, at a press conference announcing the state would help pay to replace the demolished Congress Street drawbridge, reestablishing a long-defunct but vital link between the East Side and downtown, Councilwoman Maria Valle was in a skeptical mood.

“I stand before you and wonder, “Is it gonna happen? Is it finally here?’” Valle had said.

Three-and-a-half years later, she is still awaiting an answer.

“You see?” a frustrated Valle said recently when reminded of her comments from 2019. “I am frustrated. Some kind of activity should have been happening there.”

Why the continued delay? Those involved blame: The global coronavirus pandemic that struck Connecticut in 2020; a complicated federal and state permitting process; and objections from a few property owners along the Pequonnock River about the decision to make the new Congress Street span a fixed one, rather than re-using the old drawbridge design.

So will the replacement project, which Mayor Joe Ganim prioritized in late 2016, then touted during his successful 2019 re-election bid, finally get underway for him to brag about it during his 2023 re-election campaign?

Jon Urquidi, Bridgeport’s municipal engineer, on Wednesday told members of the City Council, “As of right now I don’t have a definitive ‘this is the day were going to go out for construction.’”

He had been invited to provide a brief update to the council’s economic development committee on a few projects, the Congress Street Bridge included.

Meanwhile Thomas Gill, Ganim’s economic development chief, claimed in an interview that “we’re in the home stretch” of the permitting process, which has involved the federal Army Corps of Engineers and Connecticut’s departments of energy and environmental protection, and transportation. But Gill, like Urquidi, would not offer a timeline for a groundbreaking.

Back in January, 2019, the Ganim administration was talking about starting construction — estimated then to be $24 million, split between Bridgeport and the state — in 2020.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) in a statement said, “Construction is set to proceed by the end of 2022, with materials procurement through the winter and major construction beginning spring 2023.”

The coronavirus pandemic has been one reason for the delay, according to the DOT, along with “design challenges and project management staff changes.”

The Congress Street drawbridge got stuck in the open position over the Pequonnock River in 1997, during Ganim’s first tenure in office. The rusty hulk was demolished in 2010 under then-Mayor Bill Finch, who called it “the city's most visible reminder of infrastructure neglect.”

Ever since there has been talk about building a new structure not only to help the East Side and downtown economies, but also to improve emergency response. The city’s fire headquarters, for example, is located on Congress Street on the downtown side.

Ultimately officials decided it would be cheaper to erect an immovable bridge. As a result, the city and Bridgeport’s Congressional delegation successfully convinced the federal government to de-authorize the channel, meaning the Army Corps of Engineers is no longer responsible for dredging it, which required a drawbridge to be in place.

But that was hardly the end of the process. Bridgeport, on top of filing for various water and environment-related permits, also has been working to convince the state a drawbridge is no longer necessary and was required to submit a survey of vessel traffic to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).

“We gave them everything that they need,” Gill said this week, adding, “You will be able to get smaller boats under this bridge.”

But a couple property owners along the banks of the Pequonnock River have, according to Will Healey, director of communications for the state DEEP, expressed concerns over a fixed bridge’s “impacts to navigation” — the ability to get boats or barges to and from their land. So DEEP has been taking a hard look at those claims.

“The fact that it’s no longer a federal channel (for the Army Corps) doesn’t mean there’s no navigation,” Healey explained. “And we are responsible for ensuring safe navigation and the rights of coastal property owners.”

Urquidi told the council this week the Ganim administration has hired an outside attorney to help the municipal law department address the situation.

Based on information provided by DEEP, one of the concerned property owners is the well-known DiNardo family of developers which owns the former Grand Brass property at 522 Housatonic Ave. Representatives for the family did not return a request for comment.

Another is Michael Julian, who is launching an oyster-growing enterprise in the Pequonnock — raising the seeds in the dirtier environment there where they will thrive, then transferring those seedlings to cleaner water to complete the growth cycle. Julian said having a fixed Congress Street Bridge “kind of leaves us limited options when it comes to (business) growth.”

“I’m so new as far as the company goes, we’re in the learning process right now,” Julian said. “But I can say with pretty good certainty eventually being able to access this with a boat is gonna be critical to the operation.”

Healey said, “There is a possibility that we will join the applicant (Bridgeport) in a meeting with adjacent property owners” to try and work out any remaining issues.

Gill, however, does not believe complaints “from a couple of property owners that may some day want to do something” will halt the bridge project.

“Just think about it,” he said. “We have a situation where we have a number of people in the city who will benefit from this bridge (by) being able to connect the East Side to the downtown again. From a safety factor, the fire department will be able to utilize that bridge, as will the police and ambulances and so forth.”

Healey noted that, were a decision made not to proceed with a fixed bridge and require a drawbridge, Bridgeport “would have to submit a new application” — adding even more time to the replacement effort.

“The city could also request a hearing if we make a tentative determination to deny the existing application” for a fixed structure, Healey said.

There is yet another possible wrinkle — the higher costs of construction materials that began rising during the start of the pandemic.

According to the state transportation department, its $12 million half of the $24 million estimate announced in 2019 remains available. But is the price tag still $24 million?

“We’ll know after the (construction) bid,” Gill said. “We maybe would make some changes to the bridge that could reduce costs — some extras we put on there. But we’ve been cognizant (of inflation) and have been tracking it. We’re still within the ballpark.”

Valle at this point will not believe the bridge is being replaced until work has begun.

“There’s always something that is blocking what could be and what has been promised to the residents,” she said.

Neighbors galvanize efforts to battle proposed 1 million square foot Cromwell warehouse

Gary Kleeblatt

CROMWELL — In a David-versus-Goliath battle over a proposal for a 1 million square foot warehouse on sensitive wetlands in Cromwell, the perceived underdog has secured aid to hopefully defeat the plan.

Neighbors opposing the application by Scannell Properties of Indiana hired a lawyer and an environmental consulting firm to fight the effort. The 1.04 million square foot facility would be two and a half times bigger than the Amazon one in town.

Their lawyer, John Parks, has a record of recent wins defeating developers who wanted to build similarly sized buildings in Newtown and South Windsor. And Parks says the environmental firm has provided expert advice on how to stop the application before the Inland Wetlands Commission, which continued a hearing to Aug. 3.

The proposed site encompasses 250 acres in the Mattabesset River watershed east of Shunpike Road, north of Geer Street and south of the Rocky Hill line.

Opposition has galvanized a band of neighbors led by Geer Street resident Mike Baecker, who said the proposal is unprecedented in that it would fill in a vernal pool considered essential for maintaining the environment and the species that live there.

“A ton of animals live within it,” Baecker said of the pool on which the warehouse would be directly placed. “You’re supposed to avoid vernal pools (in such developments) at all costs.”

A lawyer representing the developer, Thomas Cody of Robinson and Cole, declined to answer questions. He said only that issues raised by neighbors and Parks about the vernal pools and other environmental matters would be addressed at the upcoming hearing.

The band of neighbors launched a GoFundMe page, which has so far raised about $13,500.

Robyn Swanson, who lives on Walnut Tree Road, also directly across from the site, said the neighbors are not playing. “We’re bracing for a long war,” said Swanson. “We’re serious about this.”

Baecker said the vernal pool that the warehouse would be placed on — one of six or seven on the site — has particular significance because animals use it as a way station to other pools. “They are interconnected,” he said.

Vernal pools are the “Holy Grail of wetlands,” Parks said, adding that the he believes the long driveway into the site “is a killing zone.” Amphibians that populate the site instinctively move from one pool to another “to attempt to do something they’ve done for thousands of years,” he added.

Parks said the construction of the warehouse is on one of the most important pools on the site. He believes the “thousands” of trucks driving along the half-mile driveway will result in the death of many amphibians.

Total truck traffic will be akin to a “nine-mile long freight train coming in every day,” and countless amphibians would be crushed under the weight of the trucks, he added.

“The amphibious life reinvigorates the wetlands,” Parks said. “They keep it alive. Wetlands are a living thing.”

Another issue Cody declined to respond to is that the Scannell-sponsored study supporting the application completely missed at least one, and perhaps two, wetlands, according to Parks, and Rema Ecological Services of Manchester, the environmental firm residents hired.

Parks said missing wetlands is a fundamental flaw.

“The town is basing its decision entirely on a misrepresentation,” he said. “You’re supposed to disclose all wetlands and tell us what you’re going to fill.”

The fact that the Scannell expert failed to identify wetlands is hard to understand, Parks added, because the person was involved in a 1990s study that detailed all the town wetlands, including those on the proposed site that the expert’s report missed.

“It calls into question the expert’s credibility,” he said, adding that he is optimistic the proposal would not receive the necessary wetlands commission approval.

Neighbors are not naive to the economic importance of development, however.

“I’m not against development in town, but it needs to be reasonable,” Swanson explained. “We don’t need tractor-trailers coming through our neighborhoods all night long.”

Parks also believes the massive nature of the proposal is simply out of place. “The magnitude and scope of the project vastly exceeds the environment’s ability to handle it,” he said.

“They are trying to squeeze it into an area that is so fragile and complicated. If it were one-tenth of the size, it wouldn’t be such a problem. This proposal is incompatible with human habitation. You can’t sleep, you can’t hear and you can’t live.”

For details on the Aug. 3 hearing, visit cromwellct.com.