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CT Construction Digest Wednesday November 18, 2020

Will Lamont finish destroying New London’s road salt business?

David Collins  Gov. Ned Lamont's Connecticut Port Authority won't disclose this on its chirpy new website, launched recently to provide updates on the $157 million plan to rebuild State Pier in New London to accommodate rich wind power utilities, but the project is woefully behind schedule.

But then why would the governor and his scandal-scarred port authority start being honest with the public now, as much more of its dirty work, like putting a thriving Connecticut enterprise out of work, lies ahead?

After all, the port authority broke its own bidding rules for a dual-use port of wind and cargo and granted the contract to run State Pier to Gateway Terminal of New Haven, which was happy to close the competing port in New London to traditional cargo and make way for wind turbines.

Who wouldn't want a little help from the state shutting down a competing deepwater port?

The extra prize for politically connected Gateway was displacing DRVN Enterprises, a home-grown road salt importer and distributor that brought competition and lower prices to a marketplace dominated by Gateway and its affiliated salt importing and distribution businesses.

DRVN is being evicted from State Pier, and the latest deadline for the company to remove its $5 million mountain of salt stored there is the end of next month.

DRVN's owner, Steven Farrelly, says there is nowhere to move the salt, and if he isn't given time to sell it off during the winter road salt season, he will have to forfeit it — likely tipping his company, with its 12 full-time employees and dozens of subcontractors, paid some $3.5 million annually, into bankruptcy.

I can only imagine the pressure Farrelly and his family face during this already-fraught COVID-19 holiday season.

Given the long delays in the schedule for work on the pier, there seems no reason why DRVN shouldn't be given an extension, unless some people want to be sure to finish crushing for good Gateway's competitor in the road salt business.

Farrelly shared a copy with me of a letter he sent last week to Lamont, literally pleading for an extension that would allow him to sell his salt into the winter season, keeping his employees fed and creditors at bay.

It pains me to see someone who has done nothing wrong have to beg. His letter to the governor, asking for something that will cost the state nothing, is painfully polite.

"As a responsible and valuable Certified Small Business for the past 21 years in Connecticut, I would only hope you would want to help us stay in business, not lose the many jobs we have worked hard to create within our company and for the many subcontractors and vendors who worked with us," Farrelly wrote to the governor.

Farrelly told me he has not had a response.

I picture Lamont, the prince of Greenwich, tossing the letter in the waste can and going back to more important matters, like buffing his loafers.

The February agreement to remake State Pier laid out an aggressive timetable, with many of those milestones already missed.

State and federal environmental permits for the work were supposed to be issued by Nov. 12. Public hearings on the applications for permits haven't even been held yet.

Construction bids also were supposed to be issued this month, but of course you can't hire contractors until you have permits to do the work.

There is no way, even in someone's wildest fantasy, that this work is going to begin before a substantial part of the winter road salt season has gone by. I'll bet Vegas bookies would give you good odds it will take a lot longer than that.

I am not sure which is worse, the way Gov. Lamont is allowing the rope to be tied around the neck of Gateway's competitor, choking the life out of a Connecticut business that has successfully lowered road salt prices paid by the state's municipalities, or the way Attorney General William Tong has chosen to look away.

When he could still afford a lawyer, Farrelly hired the one-time chief prosecutor for a previous attorney general in antitrust matters, who beseeched Tong to look into the antitrust abuses here.

The attorney general, who has refused to make public whistleblower complaints about corruption at the port authority, run by prominent Democrats, chose to look away from the antitrust complaint, maybe buffing his own loafers.

And where are the voices of all the politicians of eastern Connecticut, Republican and Democrat, who stand by silently while a legitimate small businessman complains he can't breathe? Mobsters show more mercy.

Stonington commission OKs permit for Mystic hotel

Joe Wojtas  Mystic — The Stonington Planning and Zoning Commission voted 4-1 Tuesday night to approve a special use permit to build a six-room, three-story hotel with a rooftop pool on the site of the former Broadway Auto service station.

During the first night of public hearings two weeks ago, commissioners asked numerous questions about parking, lighting, setbacks and other issues. They asked more questions Tuesday night after the developer made changes to the plan based on commission suggestions, such as installing a sidewalk along Washington Street.

Commission member Lynn Conway, who voted against the permit, expressed concern Tuesday the rooftop deck and pool would become “party central” on summer nights. But project engineer Sergio Cherenzia assured Conway the deck would not be open to the public.

In written comments read during the hearing, School Street resident Jesse Diggs said the contemporary design of the hotel is not in keeping with the historic character of the surrounding neighborhood. Conway agreed, saying the whole design concept would not fit in with the neighborhood.

Commission Chairman Dave Rathbun said the commission does not have much control when it comes to design.

The estimated $1.5 million to $2 million project will be developed by G Development LLC of Waterford. G Development, whose principals are Candice and Fotis Georgiadis, originally had planned to construct a three-story restaurant with a rooftop deck on the Broadway Auto site but scrapped those plans after learning that zoning regulations would not allow the off-site parking that was needed. The Board of Police Commissioners also expressed concerns about parking and traffic. All the parking for the proposed hotel would be accommodated on the property.

Architectural drawings show a ground floor with parking spots, a second and third floor with three guest rooms each and a rooftop deck that contains an open-air pool and hot tub. There also would be landscaping to improve the appearance of the streetscape.

Plans call for tearing down the garage, which is located on a 0.18-acre site at 32 Broadway. Records show G Development purchased the property for $375,000 last year.

Solar project developers say they’d preserve land for later farm use

A spokeswoman for the proposed Gravel Pit Solar project in East Windsor says developers have a plan to implement innovative soil restoration and preservation measures throughout the facility to improve soil quality.

The comments come in response to the Hartford Business Journal’s report that state agriculture officials oppose the project due to its impact on the state’s shrinking supply of farmland.

The Connecticut Siting Council on Thursday held an evidentiary and public hearing for the proposed 120-megawatt project on 485 acres across several sites between Apothecaries Hill Road and the south side of Plantation Road. Developers applied in July for a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility and Public Need.

According to Meaghan Wims, spokeswoman for the project, energy projects larger than 65 megawatts are required to seek a certificate.

Wims said Gravel Pit Solar has submitted a soil-preservation plan as part of its application “so that the site can be returned to row crop agriculture at the end of project operations.”

If approved, the project would become the largest solar development in the Northeast.

Only two people commented during Thursday’s public hearing, both in favor of the project.

Robert Urso, a South Windsor resident, said the development is going in the right direction in terms of green energy.

Doug King, a resident of Rye Street in East Windsor, said he believes most people in town back the project.

“I think a lot of people would rather see this project than housing or any other kind of development that could happen. I think we support the project in any way we can,” he said.

In a letter to the council, First Selectman Jason E. Bowsza said the project has the town’s full support.

“The project as proposed is large in scale and scope, and East Windsor is traditionally an agricultural community, but that does not mean that the proposed project is an incompatible use of the site,” he wrote.

A part of the site has been a tobacco farm for many year, but the owners already had decided to shut down that portion of their farm because the tobacco industry is no longer as profitable as it once was, Bowsza said.

He also noted that Gravel Pit Solar has “indicated an interest in fostering pollinator habitat on the property and possible sheep grazing during the active life of the project.”

“East Windsor has a growing beekeeping community, and the expansive habitat in close proximity will help that community continue to thrive. At the end of the project’s useful life, and after decommissioning, much of the property will be able to be returned to agricultural production,” he said, citing the soil-preservation plan.

Speaking before the start of the public hearing, Bowsza praised Gravel Pit Solar developer Aaron Svedlow and his staff for being cooperative and communicative since talks of the project began almost a year ago.

“They have repeatedly accepted the offers to come to various land boards in town and to the Board of Selectmen to give updates on the project,” Bowsza said. “I don’t think there has been an issue raised by our Planning and Zoning Commission, or by our Wetlands Commission that hasn’t been addressed by the folks at Gravel Pit Solar.”

Wims said developers have been working closely with the town, relevant state agencies, and abutters to develop the project in a manner that minimizes and avoids impacts to sensitive natural resources while providing significant benefits to the host community.

“One benefit of the project that we’ve heard mentioned repeatedly by abutting property owners, is that closing the gravel mines will reduce dust, noise, and truck traffic, and by fencing the properties we will reduce prohibited ATV activity that has become a nuisance to neighbors,” Wims said.

The Siting Council scheduled a second evidentiary hearing for Dec 1.

Gravel Pit Solar developers are anticipating approval from the council early in 2021 and if approved is expected to start construction in the summer, Wims said.

After years of debate, North Branford is getting a new high school

Meghan Friedmann  NORTH BRANFORD — Some residents have advocated for the project for years, and even when North Branford moved to make a major investment to address issues at its aging flagship school, it wasn’t clear that a new building would be in the cards.

Until earlier this month, when the Town Council voted 6-2 to move forward with the project.

The decision came at a joint meeting of the Town Council and the Board of Education Nov. 5.

It brought board Chairwoman Shawna Papa Holzer to tears, according to footage of the meeting available on TotoketTV’s YouTube page.

“You are giving kids hope, you are giving them a safe place and you’re giving them trust in adults again,” she said. “I really thank the Town Council. ... I’m sorry I’m not as composed as I should be but I really do appreciate all of your efforts.”

While the town does not yet have a construction plan in place, Town Manager Michael Paulhus said Monday the project is estimated to cost around $66 million.

Through state funding, the town hopes to offset those costs by nearly $25.5 million, according to Paulhus, who said the town should hear back next month about whether its grant application is likely to be successful.

Construction would begin in the late spring of 2021, he said.

Mayor Robert “Bob” Viglione and council members Rose Marie Angeloni, Marie Diamond, Ronald Pelliccia, Joseph Faugnan and Michael Doody all voted in favor of the new high school, with Walter Goad Jr. and Deputy Mayor Thomas Zampano opposed, according to the meeting footage

Just one month before the approval, Goad and Zampano had expressed misgivings about approving a new high school amid the uncertain economic climate of the pandemic.

Goad suggested the town instead make a sizable investment into the current building, and Zampano expressed his agreement.

The meeting sparked concern among parents and an Oct. 20 rally at the town offices in support of a new building, according to a Zip06 report.

But at the Nov. 5 meeting, Goad said, “there’s no doubt in my mind that the school could be saved,” per video of the event. He has contended the building should have been better maintained.

Superintendent of Schools Scott Schoonmaker, who has long advocated for a new school described, once described building maintenance as a “constant battle.”

“When you’re patching a 56-year-old building, you’re always chasing the next problem.”

The current building, which dates back to the 1960s, suffers from poor heating, basement flooding and dilapidated bathrooms, among other problems.

After the vote came through, Schoonmaker, thanked the council on behalf of “the over 1,700 students in this town that will have the opportunity over the next several years to go to a state-of-the-art high school,” according to the footage.

Schoonmaker could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The superintendent did tell the Register in an email earlier this month he was “thrilled” with the decision, a sentiment he also shared Nov. 6 via correspondence with community members, which was forwarded to the New Haven Register by a parent.

“I am beyond thrilled to announce that the build new option for North Branford High School was approved by a 6-2 vote of the Town Council last evening,” he wrote. “This has been a long but worthwhile process in which the North Branford Board of Education, Town Council and Ad Hoc Design Review Committee came together to complete a thorough evaluation of what was the best option for the Town and students of North Branford.”

Board of Education Chairwoman Papa Holzer was pleased the project will go forward.

“Collaboration between Board of Ed, Town Council and the Ad hoc committee led to a favorable vote for the children [of North Branford] and the members of the town community,” she said in a message. “I was impressed by the process and delighted with the outcome.”

Notably absent from the vote to approve the high school was council member Lewis “Lou” Paternoster, a proponent of the project who suffered a stroke the day before and died Nov. 6.

To honor Paternoster, Angeloni suggested the council note his would-be yes vote in the meeting minutes, an idea that was met with applause from the audience.

Betty Jo Paternoster, Lou Paternoster’s wife, said he would have been thrilled to see that the project went forward.

Schoonmaker mentioned Paternoster’s absence in his message to parents.

“I would be remiss if I did not mention the absence of Council Member Lou Paternoster last evening, as he was one of the project's biggest proponents,” he wrote. “I will always appreciate his passion and energy in moving this project forward!”