WALLINGFORD — Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. this week rebutted concerns over a developer’s application to excavate and develop a sand barren habitat along Toelles Road, which experts say is one of last of its kind in Connecticut.
Dickinson said the developer, who submitted an application to the Planning and Zoning Commission to develop a 25-acre piece of land on Allnex USA’s property, had a study done that showed the area’s sand barren and dry acidic forest habitats are “no longer viable.”
The mayor admits he has not seen the study, which has not been turned over to the town despite a request from the town’s planning office.
“To my knowledge, there have been studies done, and the uniqueness of it does no longer exist,” Dickinson said during a Town Council meeting Tuesday in response to questions from a resident. “Apparently, at one time it (was unique), but there’s no findings of any of the unique characteristics that were believed to once be there.”
Dickinson didn’t provide many specifics about the studies he referenced during the meeting Tuesday, but said in an interview Thursday his understanding is that the applicant had a “multi-seasonal analysis” done as “part of their due diligence.”
Despite not having seen the study, the mayor said “I have no reason to not believe (the applicant).”
“I haven't seen it, but that information has been mentioned, and I think it's only fair that people know the info is out there,” he added.
The 25-acre site includes two habitats – a sand barren and dry acidic forest – that are designated as critical by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Several environmental experts and agencies, including DEEP, have submitted written testimony to the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission warning of the potential environmental impact of the proposed sand excavation.
“This habitat type hosts unique plant and animal communities which, due to habitat loss, are among the most imperiled in the state,” DEEP wildlife biologist Laura Saucier wrote on April 9 in testimony to the PZC.
The attorney representing the applicant, Joan Molloy, did not return a request for comment Friday.
Erin O’Hare, the town’s environmental planner, said Friday she was “very surprised” by the mayor’s comments during the meeting Tuesday. O’Hare “disagrees with the representation the mayor made” about the site.
“The mayor would be advised to, if he wants to characterize the physical attributes of this property, it would better to get all the information from different sources before one jumps to a conclusion of what is or what is not supported by these habitats, and the uniqueness of the habitat and the (health) of the habitat. It would be best to gather all sources, especially expert sources on this, and gather many different reports and look at the big picture,” O’Hare said.
David Yih, president of the Connecticut Botanical Society, wrote in testimony to the PZC that the site is home to at least nine species that are listed by the state as endangered, threatened or of special concern. Those species include the dark-bellied tiger beetle and Connecticut's only known population of the northern dusk singing cicada, the largest cicada in North America.
"This remarkable ecological site has drawn the attention of scientists and naturalists for well over a hundred years and is featured in a number of books and articles," Yih wrote.
O’Hare said her office and the Planning and Zoning Commission have not received the report Dickinson referenced at the meeting.
When the planning office asked the developer’s attorney to submit the environmental report, the attorney “stated that she’s not required to turn it in,” according to O’Hare.
“She stated that if the Planning and Zoning Commission asks directly for it, she will give it to them,” O’Hare added.
The developer has submitted three separate applications to the commission, including an application to excavate sand from the property, which it would then process on the site and sell. The developer has also applied to build a 230,000-square-foot warehouse building and 21,000-square-foot office building on the site after the sand excavation is completed.
The 25-acre site is located on the property of Allnex, which is in talks to sell the land to the developer pending approval of the developer’s applications.The developer has submitted an application to establish a subdivision for the 25-acre site with an address of 10-20 Toelles Road.
Yih wrote that if sand was excavated from the site, it would likely “result in the permanent extirpation of a number of these rare species in Connecticut.”
Because sand plain habitats are relatively flat, have few trees and good drainage, they are especially susceptible to development, according to DEEP.
“Ninety-five percent of the sandplain habitat once occurring in Connecticut has been permanently lost to development lost to development or vegetative succession,” Saucier wrote in testimony.
The site is privately owned by Allnex, said Dickinson, who added he doesn’t believe the town is in a position to purchase the land.
“If it clears all the regulatory hurdles, we’re not in a position to say, ‘No you can't,’” Dickinson said.
Tim Ryan, the town’s economic development specialist, said he supports the project because it would help the grand list and add jobs to the local economy. While environmental impact is always a concern, Ryan said, "we are satisfied at this point that the best use of that property going forward is to develop it as opposed to preserving it."
The Planning and Zoning Commission is expected to discuss the application at its next meeting on May 14 at 7 p.m. in Town Hall.