What comes next?

I’ll be happy to see what remains of the abandoned power plant project removed from the side of Cathole Mountain in Meriden. Since the day the structures were built more than a decade ago, they’ve been an unwelcome addition to the otherwise scenic vistas of the city’s famous Hanging Hills —detracting from a uniquely local natural resource residents are lucky to have, but often take for granted.

Following the announcement last month of a settlement with power plant developer NRG, including demolition of the buildings, some city officials seemed to share that sentiment — how nice it will be to have such a blight removed from the mountain. But that means vastly different things to different people.

You could look at the industrial buildings standing naked against the hills and curse the developer for not following through on requirements to camouflage the half-built generating plant through creative use of paint and landscaping, as the city essentially did in its lengthy legal battle with NRG, just now coming to a close. Or, like me, you might view the failed project with regret and frustration that development with such high environmental impact could ever have been allowed among the Hanging Hills in the first place — and worry about whatever unknown, similarly high-impact project might replace it.

The zoning change that allowed construction of a power plant allows almost anything else to take its place on the mountain.

Presumably, NRG would love nothing more than to unload the 40 or so acres on the mountain where the finished plant would have stood and put Meriden in its rear view mirror for good. That’s not exactly a formula for prudent land use, so who knows what could be coming next?

But there’s a lot more at stake than just the power plant site. As a condition of its approval by state regulators, NRG was required to donate hundreds of acres of surrounding land to Meriden and Berlin, with the intention of mitigating the environmental effects of the plant. Berlin made the wise decision to conserve all of its 450 acres in keeping with the spirit in which the land was transferred. But Meriden plans to allow private development on nearly 150 acres of its allotment. Since all that land has the same wide-open zoning as the power plant site itself, city officials recently began the process of putting some limits on what can be built there. They have visions of industrial parks and high-end condos, but insist it will only be light industry and that the most visible sites will be left alone, so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

But that’s not the lesson the city should be taking away from its experience with the failed power plant, particularly at a time when all the tough work necessary to set the stage for downtown redevelopment is finally starting to come to fruition.

Meriden has a promising plan for promoting housing and commercial development downtown where it’s most needed.

City officials’ success in creating a “transit-oriented district” around the train station, capitalizing on commuter rail service being built between New Haven, Hartford and Springfield, makes the prospect of turning around vacant industrial sites in the center of the city more of a reality than ever.

Why not keep the focus of future economic development there and leave the land donated by NRG alone?

Reach Managing Editor/News Eric Cotton at (203) 317-2344 or ecotton@record-journal.com. Follow him on Twitter @ecotton3.



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