The Branford Planning and Zoning Commission is considering an application to allow more flexibility in what can be built at the exit 53 intersection, as property owners have had a difficult time finding potential tenants with the lack of a full 4-way highway exchange.
John Mancini of engineering firm BL Companies presented the proposed changes, that would allow some additional industrial uses, including storage facilities and fulfillment centers, on the site that is currently zoned for retail.
Mancini stated that retail companies have been unable to build on the site, as the traffic concerns due to the lack of the full highway exchange prevent a workable plan. Retail stores like Home Depot had wanted the site but chose East Haven instead, and earlier this year Costco reviewed the location, but traffic concerns turned them away as well.
The significant issue is that large retail outlets that pull from a larger geographic area would see much of the traffic need to use exit 54, forcing traffic on to route 1 to get to the exit 53 location.
There have been plans to try to rectify the situation, done over the last few years as part of a South Central Regional Council of Governments (SCRCOG) study, and were presented by first selectman Jamie Cosgrove at a public hearing last year. The plans would realign the Route 1/Commercial Parkway intersection, and add exit ramps to create a full exchange.
However, cost remains a significant concern, with estimates for the full project coming in at at minimum cost of $25 million, something neither the town nor potential businesses can afford.
Adding language that would allow alternative types of development, by special exception, would better help market the space, according to Mancini.
“We have a unique property on a dead end street, behind a 7-acre Department of Transportation (DOT) parcel, zoned for retail,” he said. “By adding this text, help be able to better get tenants.”
Town Planner Harry Smith showed support for the concept, stating that the towns Plan of Conservation and Development supported it and this exit is a unique situation. In the new regulation wording, details were included that would mandate tree coverage on the main road to better hide industrial uses as well.
One aspect that raised some questions was the addition of a “fulfillment center” to the wording. Fulfillment centers are becoming more common with the increase of ecommerce, and Amazon having multiple fulfillment centers throughout the state.
Mancini, who stated he had worked with some of those fulfillment centers, stated that companies like Amazon do not take a one size fits all approach, but rather build to the site or adapt to an existing structure. Mancini pointed out the different aspects of Amazons fulfillment centers in North Haven and Meriden.
A question from Smith was on traffic generation of a fulfillment center; Mancini stated the traffic was about 20% of what would be generated by a retail shopping center.
From a size perspective, the property would need to be large enough to be profitable for the property owners, but not trigger demands from the Office of the State Traffic Administration (OSTA) for significant offsite improvements.
When a project is either over 100,000 square feet or has over 200 parking spaces, an OSTA review is required. OSTA can demand significant offsite improvements, or none at all; a demand of off-site improvements, such as significant road wok or even demanding new exits, would make a plan lack viability.
Mancini stated he would look to create a plan at no more than a 60% impervious coverage rate, while making it small enough to ensure off site costs would not hurt the viability of the site.
While Mancini’s request would apply just to address the unique issues at exit 53, attorney Nick Mingione, who stated he was hired by property owners at exit 54 and 56, stood up against the plan believing that any changes should apply to other exits as well, and that exit 53 already has traffic concerns, and adding potential fulfillment centers would only add to that.
It remains unclear why Mingione did not make his own application.
Mancini responded making clear that the added used would be less traffic that the retail the area is current approved for, and that exit 56 already has far more flexibility at this point.
Kris Shapiro, one of the property owners at exit 53, gave a history of the applicants working with town staff for over a year to develop the wording, and that they came before the Commission informally, but on record, over three months ago.
Despite that, he said, he got a call at 5 PM that day from Mancini that Mingione had contacted him saying pull the application or he was going to fight it.
“That’s not fair to us,” said Shapiro. He also stated Mingione has refused to disclose which property owners at exit 56 he was representing in fighting the application for exit 53.
The exit 53 owners have a long history of trying to attract development, but the luck of an exit 53 intersection has made it a near impossibility. With the significant costs of adding exit ramps making it prohibitive, the Commission requested the applicants present drawings of potential coverage and uses, and left the hearing open to continue to receive information and public input.