OLD SAYBROOK – A plan to fit a Whole Foods in the former Benny’s plaza on Boston Post Road received wetlands approval from the town Thursday after neighbors said the project’s increased paving would worsen flooding in their shoreline community.
Members of the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission acknowledged that the neighbors in Chalker Beach have real concerns with runoff from development on Boston Post and Spencer Plain roads, but said the issues are mainly outside of the commission’s jurisdiction, and that the stormwater controls the developer proposed would help.
Rhode Island-based developer Carpionato Group has proposed turning the old Benny’s plaza at 1654 Boston Post Road into a 40,000-square-foot Whole Foods Market, with another 25,365 square feet of space for retail or medical offices.
The developer said that because of Whole Foods’ strict parking requirements, an additional 0.4 acres will need to be paved to fit 395 spaces.
Commissioner Jay Kulowiec said the new parking lot would increase the paved surface by about 5 percent but that Carpionato made up for the increase through a dual plan to build stormwater controls for both property runoff and an offsite DOT drainage pipe that runs water from Boston Post Road to the wetlands.
“For all this time up until now, it’s basically been discharged uncontrolled,” Kulowiec said of the DOT pipe. “I don’t necessarily know the motivations of the applicant, but they decided to put controls on that discharge even though it’s not coming from their property, so I found that to be a very positive sign.”
Commissioner Laura Parker Gray said she was concerned about whether the area was suitable for a septic system Carpionato Group was proposing.
At the last public hearing in September, engineer Steven Trinkhaus – hired by Chalker Beach residents to provide expert testimony on their behalf – told the commission that the proposed drainage system doesn’t do enough to clean the runoff it collects.
Trinkhaus also said commission members needed to consider the “elephant in the room,” specifically that they didn’t have enough information about the proposed new septic system to determine that it won’t pollute the wetlands. He said he was concerned that putting the septic under a paved lot would hurt the system’s ability to dilute nitrogen, putting the wetlands more at risk.
‘I’m generally on the pro-development side of the coin, but to come in with a plan that has absolutely no provisions for how to handle the wastewater, you can’t act on that plan,” Trinkhaus said. “You’re approving a building use here, and you don’t know if you can even make it work from a septic standpoint. Whether it’s under your jurisdiction or not, it has to be in the plans, and it has to be demonstrated it will function.”
First Selectman Carl Fortuna, attending Thursday’s meeting as a non-voting member of the commission, said the septic system will be reviewed by the Connecticut River Area Health District. He said any leaching from the septic system would end up in the marsh, but the health district would only approve a system if it meets their standards.
“I assume the professionals at CRAHD will handle that issue, but I see it as a huge improvement to the site, from a drainage point of view and from many other points of view,” Fortuna said.
Commission Chair Colin Heffernan said the public hearing brought out concerns from neighbors who have issues with an old tide gate that wasn’t working, seasonal flooding and other legitimate concerns that would have to be addressed. But those issues are outside the commission’s jurisdiction, which is the impact on the wetlands next to the plaza, he said.
“Our experts have stated on the record that there would not be a negative impact on the wetlands, and that is largely where our jurisdiction, as far as I’m concerned, kind of begins and ends,” Heffernan said. “That is not to say that the neighborhoods that are affected by sea level rise, and by a floodgate that may or may not be operating, and by runoff, shouldn’t be listened to.”
At the public hearing last month, Louis Treschitta, a Chalker Beach resident, said the upland development around Spencer Plain Road had been snowballing and worsening flooding, and that the Carpionato proposal would add to the negative effects on the beach community.
He said he had already raised concerns about the impact runoff from a proposed new shopping center just south of I-95 on Spencer Plain Road would have on the downstream coastal area, and he was told then to bring expert testimony, which is why the residents hired Trinkhaus to show the impact.
“You’re going to ruin everybody’s septic system in the area. You already have a water test that has high E. coli in it,” Treschitta said. “Now this drain water is going to go over other people’s properties, and you’re going to put E. coli in the streets and in people’s yards.”
Geoff Fitzgerald, the engineer working with Carpionato, said that the development on Spencer Plain was different because it involved cutting down a wooded area to build a new plaza, rather than making a “minor increase” in parking to an existing one. And he said the E. coli issue was because of high groundwater in Chalker Beach and other beach communities, not with development upstream.
But Steve Sheehan, an attorney representing the Chalker Beach Improvement Association, said that beach residents were concerned about a higher volume of water flowing from the development area to the beach neighborhood. He said Carpionato could have chosen to build less retail space with a smaller parking lot but the developer wanted the additional retail spaces and potential medical offices, which require extra parking on top of the already high parking demand that Whole Foods brings.
“If they just wanted to put in Whole Foods and they did not need to add these other spaces, they wouldn’t be increasing the [paved] surface area,” Sheehan said. “There’s ways this thing can be done.”
Town Engineer Geoffrey Jacobson had offered two alternatives to lower the impacts of the development – either reducing the size of the building or removing 37 parking spaces from the rear of the building.
But Carpionato’s attorney Ed Cassella said they had already been incorporating alternatives to limit the impact, including a larger detention basin and removing a portion of the building to keep the pavement further from the wetlands. Any further changes wouldn’t be “prudent or feasible,” for the project, he said.
“Attorney Sheehan made the comment that the design of the site is our choice, which is absolutely correct,” Cassella said. “It could be a park, and there would be no stormwater impact. But the site exists as it does today, and from all accounts… the stormwater measures will be beneficial to the wetlands.”
Heffernan asked how Carpionato drew the line between what changes were acceptable and what moved beyond “economically reasonable.”
Cassella said it depends on how much work is being done – in this case, a “full facelift” of the Benny’s plaza. But it comes down to how much the developer is willing to spend for the return they expect to get, he said.
Treschitta questioned why the developer’s profit was a wetlands consideration.
“I didn’t know profit was part of the reasoning to get through wetlands,” Treschitta said. “Are you going to open up Pandora’s Box for other developers to come and say, ‘Hey, it doesn’t meet my profit range, so I want to build bigger.’”
Brendan Crowley covers energy and the environment for CT Examiner. T: 860 598-0050