The Planned Development District (PDD), the planning and Zoning mechanism that would have allowed Costco to build at exit 56, has expired as of August 1 as property owners did not seek an extension.
In 2015, multiple applicants, including Costco, an entity owned by the Cooke family, and developers Charlie Weber and Al Secondino, applied for the PDD, which took multiple smaller parcels and created one master plan that included approval for a wholesale club and a new access road.
A PDD approval required a site plan application within 2 years and final completion within 5. In 2017 and 2018, the Planning and Zoning Commission allowed extensions of one year each. The applicants were eligible for one additional extension, but have missed the deadline to file it, and thus the 2015 approval has expired.
There was overwhelming support in town for Costco at exit 56 in 2015, but also a vocal group against, led by some of the leaders in the Democratic Party, which had longstanding issues with one of the property owners, Wayne Cooke. Despite the opposition, the plan ultimately passed Planning and Zoning with a 3-2 margin, and then headed to the Inland Wetlands Commission.
In that process, both the Branford Land Trust and the Branford Citizens of Responsible Development (BCRD), a group formed to fight Costco, signed on as intervenors. Costco and the Land Trust met multiple times, allowing input from the Land Trust but also adding to the cost. The BCRD refused to meet with Costco.
Part of the process of an Inland Wetlands application is the hiring of a peer reviewer, outside experts to analyze the application. The commission hired Milone and McBroom; an investigation by BranfordSeven.com of email and phone records showed that the final report was influenced by staff and the Commission chairman. Soon after, the three applicants pulled the application before it could get to a vote.
The decision to pull the application was significant. Had they allowed it to get to a vote, they would have a right to appeal; any complaint about the process could have been resolved in court. By removing the application, the three applicants gave up their legal right to appeal.
At the time, it was expected that Costco would reapply. But what also became clear in the process was a series of drastically escalating costs: creating an access road around wetlands, the states demand that significant work be done to route 1 and the exit ramps, work needed on East Industrial Road, an changes to appease the Land Trust were pushing the project well outside the budget.
In addition, Costco itself did not fit on any one parcel. In order for the plan to work, Costco had to acquire property owned by the Cooke family, but also acres owned by Weber and Secondino, road access owned by Connecticut Shellfish, and appease area businesses such as the Chowder Pot and Stop and Shop, all costly propositions. Some of the property owners, but not all, were willing to drop their prices, but the costs still remained well above budgeted.
With escalating costs, other factors also played a role in Costco not returning. In July of 2017, Jeff Brotman, one of the co-founders of Costco who handled much of the real estate arm of the company, passed away unexpectedly. Soon after, Joe Montesano, the representative who handled the Branford application, left the company as well.
In addition, plans to build in East Lyme were moving forward.
Discussions between the town and Costco representatives had been ongoing, and some of the property owners working on bringing overall costs down.
Costco has maintained an interest in Branford. Earlier this year, property owners at exit 53 prepared a video to show access to the site from exit 54. Costco representatives were intrigued, and even visited the site, but ultimately decided that without a 4-way exit ramp at exit 53 the site would not work.
Sources have indicated that Costco may be more open to reapply in Branford once East Lyme is open, but they have also been hesitant to work with some of the property owners at the exit 56 location.
If Costco were to apply once again, it would now require a new PDD application.