WALLINGFORD — Local officials are trying to clarify state environmental oversight in regard to a developer’s plan to excavate sand from a rare sandplain habitat and build a large warehouse.
Jim Seichter, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, said he’s not clear what jurisdiction the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has over the project, which has generated concerns from environmental groups due to its possible impact on several threatened and endangered species believed to be on the site.
Seitcher has asked Town Planner Kacie Hand to look into DEEP’s authority in advance of the commission's next meeting on May 14, when it’s expected to discuss the proposed project.
Hand, who was also unsure of DEEP’s exact oversight, said she has asked the developer to provide her with a list of the DEEP permits that will be required for the project because “there’s not necessarily one person I can call (at DEEP) and tell me all the permits they need.” Hand said she is still waiting to hear back from the applicant.
Rusty Rogers, doing business as Wallingford Industrial Improvement LLC, filed the development application. He is represented by attorney Joan Molloy.
Rogers and Molloy did not return requests for comment. Also listed as a principal in the company is Carl Verderame III of Southington, according to state records.
The development company is in talks with Allnex USA to purchase 25 acres on the south end of Allnex’s roughly 240-acre property. The company wants to excavate sand from the property for three to five years, after which a 230,000-square-foot warehouse and a 21,000-square-foot office building would be built, according to applications submitted to the town.
The 25-acre site, at 10-20 Toelles Road, includes two habitats — a sand barren, also called a sandpain, and dry acidic forest — that are designated by DEEP as critical and imperiled habitats. The site “hosts rare communities and state-listed species,” DEEP wildlife biologist Laura Saucier wrote to the commission in testimony.
Several environmental experts and agencies, including DEEP, have raised concerns about the project in written testimony to the commission. The sandplain habitat is among the last five percent remaining in Connecticut.
DEEP spokesman Chris Collibee said he couldn’t comment on how much oversight DEEP would have on the project because the department has not been contacted by the developer or reviewed “the property and any potential permits that would be required.”
“As we have not received a permit for the property, it would be inappropriate to speculate on how we might be involved in the future,” Collibee said in response to an inquiry from the Record-Journal.
Collibee added, “The threshold for our involvement would be based on the scope and scale of the project to then determine what, if any, state permits would be required. Typically, a project would begin at the local town level for review and then come to us for review if required.”
Hand said it’s her understanding that if a project will affect an area with state-listed species, the applicant must receive a permit from DEEP.
95 percent lost
While state statutes give the PZC limited authority to reject projects based on environmental concerns, Hand said the commission traditionally approves projects under the condition that an applicant receive all the necessary permitting from DEEP before the project begins.
“The Planning and Zoning Commission can only consider what they have the statutory authority to consider,” he said. “The majority of the jurisdiction for environmental concerns does fall under DEEP. That being said, the commission understands the concerns being expressed and wants to acknowledge them to the best of their ability. That’s why it’s important for us to understand” DEEP’s statutory authority.
Hand said state law does give towns the permission to consider “environmental features” when deciding on a special permit, which Rogers is seeking to excavate sand from the site. Hand said it’s important for the commission to understand DEEP’s jurisdiction “so nothing falls through the cracks.”
Some have suggested that DEEP’s authority over the project may be limited given that it’s privately owned land.
“It appears the singular qualities of this unique habitat may not preclude its development after all, because the state (of Connecticut) cannot block alteration of this site on the basis of its status of supporting two state of Connecticut Critical Habitats without inviting a ‘takings’ lawsuit,” town environmental planner Erin O’Hare wrote in a 2016 document describing the sandplain on Allnex’s property.
“In other situations,” O’Hare continued, “the DEEP works with developers in the site planning process to compromise on a management plan for identified state-listed species or special communities in question, but, in this instance, the entire sandplain is the rarity and there is no room for compromise.”
Longtime state Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, said she has worked with Rogers on projects in the past involving the Quinnipiac River and Quinnipiac Linear Trail. Mushinsky said she has talked with Rogers about the application and got the impression that he’s willing to work with DEEP to come to a compromise.
“He is a successful developer, but he also has an environmental sensibility,” Mushinsky said of Rogers. “I've worked with him before on other projects and I know that is true of him.”
Mushinsky said she would like the commission to approve the application under the condition that Rogers work with DEEP’s wildlife unit to create a conservation and mitigation plan for the project.
The sandplain habitat on the Wallingford site is the largest and most ecologically intact remnant of the formerly extensive North Haven sandplain that once stretched 15 miles from Meriden to New Haven. The sandplains was formed during the ice age between 15,000 and 20,000 years ago by melting glaciers.
According to DEEP, “95 percent of the sandplain habitat once occurring in Connecticut has been permanently lost to development or vegetative succession.” The habitats are especially susceptible to development because they are relatively flat, have few trees and good drainage.
Seichter questioned how much power DEEP could have over the project given that 95 percent of other sandplain habitats are gone.
“If it’s a major concern for DEEP, then what's up with 95 percent of the sandplains going away, and why did they not take some action if they have the ability to?” Seichter asked. “This (sandplain) is extremely important, but weren't the other ones important? And where was DEEP with protecting those?
“That’s not directed as criticism at anyone,” Seichter added. “I’m just trying to understand what the situation is.”
‘Caught off guard?’
Mushinsky, a long-time environmental advocate who’s also a member of Allnex’s community advisory board, said DEEP was “caught off guard” by Allnex’s plans to sell the piece of property.
The Allnex property was previously owned by Cytec Industries Inc., which Mushinsky said “always protected the site and allowed environmental researchers” to come onto the property.
Under Cytec’s ownership, Mushinsky said DEEP “assumed” the site would be safe from development, and thus used its “dwindling” funds to purchase other properties for preservation.
In 2013, Cytec sold its industrial coatings and resins business Advent International Corporation, which was later launched under the name of Allnex.
Mushinsky claims the Wallingford plant has been directed by Allnex, an international cooperation, to sell the undeveloped land because it isn’t producing a profit.
“It seemed to be safe in Cytec’s possession, but the company has merged with overseas partners and it’s a big successful international company,” Mushinsky saiThe current managers are required to sell off property that is not producing,” Mushinsky said. “When the structure of the corporation changed, that's really how we ended up there. Instead of having Cytec protect the site, we now have Allnex … Allnex sees the property as not producing anything monetarily, so they want it sold.”
Frank DiCristina, manager of the Wallingford Allnex site, said there “has never been the directive (Mushinsky) mentions.”
DiCristina said he couldn’t speak for Cytec, a separate company, but said he is not aware of any agreement between DEEP and Cytec to preserve the site.
“Allnex is proud of our progress on environmental matters and believe the prospective buyer is taking all steps to comply with the proper requirements and regulation,” DiCristina said.
The 25-acre property has been listed for sale on real estate websites for $3.6 million, or about $145,000 an acre. Mushinsky said while she’d like to see the sandplain conserved she doesn’t think any environmental or conservation groups “have that kind of money.”
DiCristina said the site has been up for sale for two to three years.