A group of residents, led by Democratic leader Penny Bellamy, has hired an attorney in their fight against first selectman Jamie Cosgrove and the potential Costco in Branford.
Sources indicate that the group Branford Citizens for Responsible Development has hired New Haven based attorney Keith Ainsworth to help in their fight against the Costco Master Plan, which actually combined existing approvals on some lots and combined them to create an overall plan for the area directly off of exit 56.
Ainsworth is well known for representing resident groups fighting land use issues. He is representing a group in North Branford fighting against a proposed propane storage area, and previously worked with groups fighting cell towers.
The group, called “Branford Citizens for Responsible Development,” much like a similar group in Guilford that was formed when Costco was proposed on the “rock pile.” While the title implies they are for development, their website shows no development ideas or plans, rather, it attacks Costco and the proposed development at exit 56.
The group is far from a grassroots effort. Made up mostly of Democrats and Stony Creek residents, the group was started by Penny Bellamy, a Democratic operative and defacto leader of the local Democratic party. Bellamy runs what is known as the Hilltop Brigade, which organizes groups to elect Democrats. When the effort was initially announced at a Stony Creek Association meeting, residents were encouraged to reach out to Bellamy if they wished to join.
The group has created a website to lay out their arguments. We will take a closer look at the argument here.
A look at the arguments
The arguments for the Master Plan being proposed are laid out in this Sunday Essay, and center around a design that minimizes traffic impacts and makes use of Costco’s investment in infrastructure, investment that would not happen without Costco’s dollars, to bring together 5 different land owner to create one comprehensive plan. The location directly off of exit 56 is ideal, and recent improvements to the area make access from a variety of points easier.
Also, the public in Branford is overwhelmingly behind bringing Costco to town.
The opponents are working to paint a picture of increased traffic, a monster development, and one that is against the character and planning in Branford.
Let’s take a look at the facts.
The underlying zoning on the site is Industrial (IG-2). Opponents have stated this precludes retail.
It doesn’t. The existing zone, according to Branford’s current regulations, allows retail of under 3,000 square feet in the zone with a special exception. This is key as 2 of the parcels included in the Master Plan call for retail at less than 3,000 square feet, and thus are already properly zoned.
Also included in an IG-2 are banks and fast food restaurants, with or without a drive-through. It is very possible 2-3 of the parcels will be either a bank, as has already been discussed in the area, or fast food with a drive through, such as a Panera Bread or McDonalds.
Also included in an IG-2 zone are gas stations.
This being the case, 4-5 of the parcels are already in zones that would see very easy approval on their own.
The remaining zones, not including Costco for now, saw retail approved about 15 years ago on a far more dense project. While that approval has expired, having previous approvals is key, as the town found out the hard way when previous approvals were in place for residential on the Tabor property.
Costco, depending on how one views it, may or may not fall out of the zone. Costco is a warehouse, members only operation, and warehouse sales are permitted, with a special exception, on the site as currently zoned. If one views it as retail, then zoning needs to be changed. Costco is asking for the zoning to be changed.
What does the Plan of Conservation and Development say?
Opponents of the Master Plan are pushing the idea that the Costco Master Plan is against the Plan of Conservation and Development. To do so, on their website, they take portions of the “plan” and use it. For example:
What makes this interesting is that they clearly, in the highlighted parts, focus on what they believe helps them, but ignore what clearly doesn’t. This portion asks for 3 things for approval of a project:
- That they be “consistent with any comprehensive plan of development adopted by the Commission"
- When the proposals “are located on tracks of sufficient size to accommodate harmonious design of buildings, structures and facilities”
- And “when another zoning district could not be appropriately established to accomplish such purposes.”
First, the Plan of Conservation and Development is quite excited about development at exit 56. To quote the Plan: “Exit 56 has the advantage of good highway access, sewer and water service, and large parcels of undeveloped land that offers great opportunity for high quality development.” Clearly, if one considers this Master Plan good development, it is being encouraged by the Plan of Conservation and Development.
Second, there is no question the development is of sufficient size to create a harmonious design. A road is being created on the site, off the main roadways, that connects the parcels on the site, and the project will feature a harmonious paving plan, wetland plan, tree plan, lighting plan and cohesiveness in multiple other areas.
Finally, the third aspect is that such a plan could not be met elsewhere. Opponents of the plan have pointed to exit 53 as an option. But this simply cannot work in the near future, as we explained in detail here and was also explained by state representative Lonnie Reed, who stated that even if all the different property owners were ready to go, which they are not, the project would still be 5 years away.
When we look in detail at the objections presented by the opposition, we find the case falls apart; the Master Plan satisfies the three main components needed for approval.
We have detailed what the plan is doing to address traffic, the new access road, the additional of right turns lanes, and more, in previous articles. Opponents have greatly exaggerated the traffic impacts, on one graphic posted to their website, they estimate an insane 6.8 million cars per year.
Obviously, this number is made up and represents fearmongering, but that does not mean traffic is not a concern. Traffic is nowhere near that number, if we use very basic math, taking the average annual revenue from a Costco, 160 million, divided by the average check at Costco of just over $100 (per their CEO), one gets nowhere near that number. And comparing it to parking lots of a movie theater, as if all the traffic will converge on exit 56 at once, is absurd.
Editors Note: Initially we reported average tickets at $400; this was their website ticket average. Even if, for arguments sake, we use $100 ticket average, we still end up with 1.6 million cars a year, nowhere near the 6.8 million opponents are stating.
But what do know is that any development will mean increased traffic. We do not need to revisit the specific design aspects that address the traffic, and the comparison between this proposal and the “as-of-right” development on the site, but we can look at what has taken place outside the project in the recent years in expectation for development.
The Plan of Conservation and Development does raise traffic concerns about exit 56. “However,” the report reads, “it is also projected to experience severe traffic congestion, even with the current zoning designation. The South Central Connecticut Council of Governments projects that traffic will increase by about 260 percent by the year 2025 to about 26,800 vehicles per day."
But, we also have to take into account how that was arrived at. The POCD used a 2003 traffic study that was highly debated when the POCD was developed. As most in town know, major improvements have taken place on the exit and Leete’s Island Road, and the surrounding areas.
For example, we have the head of Special Projects in Branford, Terry Elton, writing in an effort to attract development to Branford last year by touting the towns infrastructure projects:
“Meanwhile, another critical intersection improvement project has been completed at the juncture of Rte. 139 (North Branford Rd.) and School Ground Rd,” he writes. “At the same time, design plans are being finalized for a new School Ground Rd. bridge over the Branford River. That project will be followed by the replacement of the Rte. 139 bridge and related road improvements.
“Combined, these distinct projects will result in marked improvements to the various Rte. 1 and I-95 feeder roads on the east end of town and will have a positive impact on development opportunities in that area.
What is clear is that the major infrastructure improvement that have been done at exit 56 were done in expectation of development. The traffic argument is a weak one, as the town is publicly touting those improvement in an effort to attract development.
We should focus on Bioscience.
Opponent of the Costco plan have argued that we are better off attracting bioscience and tech to Branford. No one is opposed to doing so.
First, the two are not mutually exclusive. Employees in the biosciences and tech sectors enjoy Costco as much as anyone else, and having access to shopping like Costco may well help attract families to Branford.
But there is more, and it has to do with the wrongful belief that bioscience has been a boon to the Branford tax base. It hasn’t. Why?
First, the companies coming here are rarely making any large investment in property. They are coming with the aid of million is low interest loans from the state, and those low interest loans become grants, that do not require repayment, if certain thresholds of employment are met. These companies are not building new facilities, they generally fill in vacancies in existing structures, thus providing almost not increase in property tax revenues. In fact, for many of them, the end goal is to be purchased by a larger corporation. Branford saw the impact of this recently when local businesses were purchased and moved out of town.
At a recent forum on the bioscience industry in the state, state Representative Lonnie Reed stated that one of the attractive developments in town for bioscience was the Atlantic Wharf proposal, specifically because they were new, quality apartments, as employees in those businesses are not looking to purchase homes. With the volatility in bioscience, employees are more transient, and fewer are settling down in town.
This does not mean the move to become a bioscience “hub” is bad in any way. If it works, and the companies that were attracted here stay beyond the millions granted them by the state, it can be an excellent long term benefit to the town. But this is simply a gamble by the state and town, we will not know for years if it is paying off. But in the short term, it means little to the tax rolls and grand list, which is what plays a role in offsetting taxes.
What also needs to be clear is that many of the businesses that came to Branford filled vacancies in properties initially built by Charlie Weber and Al Secondino. Those developers are also the ones working on the Costco Master Plan, as the demand simply doesn’t exist to build more space for bioscience right now, and at least not until we have indications beyond the state grants. There are developers that have built on speculation in the past, something no one is willing to do in this economy. Costco is investing tens of millions into Branford and its infrastructure, something the bioscience industry has not shown any desire to do at this point.
Cost of Services
That the opponents have made a big issue of the potential increase in town costs is no secret, Democrats have repeatedly tried to take what is a Planning and Zoning matter to other town bodies. After multiple lawsuits centered on the towns interference in Planning and Zoning, level heads have prevailed, as leader of the town board, of both political parties, have rejected this attempt.
That has not stopped the opponents from disseminating some questionable information on the proposed development. Consider this chart:
The opponents actually pull numbers from the air, estimating that the additional cost of services will be $230,000, made up from $100,000 each from fire and police and $30,000 from public works. But some of those departments give a different story.
For example, the opponents use the Costco in Milford as an example, stating 192 police service calls were made to Costco in Milford, and then using some math which they do not show, estimate that the new development will require 354 additional calls.
First, what is counted needs to be included. Police, for example, respond to calls, but in their charting, they include calls they initiated, such as motor vehicle checks and tickets. Actual demand is far less. It appears the opponents have taken some of their information from propaganda writer Marcia Chambers to arrive at these inaccurate numbers.
Also key is that police are not sitting in a circle at the station waiting for calls. Exit 56, with a truck stop, lumber yard, Stop and Shop, Dunkin Donuts, Popeye’s chicken, Starbucks, a liquor store, a shellfish company, a gun manufacturer and more, police are already routinely in the area. These are not generally special trip to exit 56.
On the fire department, the propaganda goes even further from the facts. The burden on the fire department is in medical calls, thus focused on medical facilities, not retail. For example, let’s compare two locations over the last two years and their calls, provided by the Branford Fire Department:
Fire department calls to Wal-Mart, Kohl’s and Big Y combined, 2013-14: 82 total
Fire department calls to GardenSide Retirement Community: 2013-14: 401 total.
In the 82 calls for the retail stores, only 9 were motor vehicle accidents.
The belief that the Costco development will impact fire department resources is a myth. Both the police and fire department have been looking for additional staffing for years, in fact, the fire department is hoping to add two new staff members with a grant next year. Opponents of the Costco plan are trying to connect any new staff to the Costco plan; it simply is propaganda.
It is true that discussions are taking place about building an outpost for the fire department on route 1 near exit 56. This is a product of the department simply jumping on a developer to help fund what they have been requesting for years, the need is not new. Fire chief Shaun Heffernan has stated that if this happens, he will simply station existing staff there, and not require additional staff for Costco. The new Alzheimers assisted living facility approved last month with no objections will have a far greater impact than any Costco Master Plan.
While opponents of the Costco plan have hired an attorney, created a website and tried to raise the issue in town meetings, the arguments remain weak at best. Some of the information they have provided simply is made up or pure fantasy. They have attributed costs to the Plan that are simply not accurate, and made up traffic numbers.
The argument that the plan is against the Plan of Conservation and Development rings hollow as well. Yes, the developers are requesting a zone change, but the POCD encourages smart development at exit 56, and a close look at the plan as submitted indicates a careful look at town needs, infrastructure and traffic issues, and creates a cohesive plan. While some prefer a focus on bioscience businesses, none have shown a desire to invest heavily in infrastructure or building in Branford, and while a bioscience focus is fine, it does not preclude bringing an extremely popular retail outlet like Costco to town.