The Branford River took stage center at a P&Z Commission meeting last week as a boutique hotel named the Tidal Lodge was approved in spirit, and the town’s first boardwalk made its debut.
After listening to a presentation about the hotel, the P&Z voted unanimously to ask Town Planner Harry Smith to prepare a resolution to approve the hotel project.
The boardwalk stretches 2,011 feet and may be 12 or 10 feet wide along the River’s edge, between Indian Neck Avenue and Montowese Street where access is expected to be provided. The Branford Land Trust owns the Montowese property. The boardwalk will run between the Amtrak railroad tracks and the Branford River.
The boardwalk has quietly won the approval of the first selectman’s office and the hotel’s developer. Town Engineer Janice Plaziak has asked for easements to relocate a storm water pipe for the hotel and to create a public access easement for the proposed boardwalk. The hotel and the boardwalk will require approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEEP), which oversees coastal site plans. The Board of Selectman and the Representative Town Meeting will also review the plans, the P&Z learned.
The town’s involvement in the creation of the boardwalk was made public by John B. Lust (pictured), who typically sits as a member of the P&Z. But on Thursday evening after the hotel project was presented, Lust appeared during the public portion of the meeting to describe the genesis of the boardwalk project, which adjoins the new hotel at Indian Neck Avenue.
Lust’s business, his day job, centers on working for clients seeking designs and marine permits for various land and water projects. He said in an interview that he has a long association and history with the Branford River and has worked on the boardwalk project for three years.
This project, he said, was dear to his heart. He told the P&Z members he had volunteered his work for the boardwalk project as a labor of love because he has long wanted the public to have access to the beauty of the Branford River. The town is expected to seek state grants to help fund the project, he said.
A Waterfront Hotel
The waterfront hotel would be built on the site of the former Paul’s Wire Rope & Sling Company (pictured) at 4-6 Indian Neck Avenue, which is across the street from the brewery. The Crowley family purchased Paul’s Wire for $600,000 in September 2016. The property is located in a flood zone.
The developer, Ed Crowley, owns the popular Stony Creek Brewery at 5 Indian Neck Ave., a brewery that has become a destination point for visitors from across the state and beyond. Crowley, the managing partner of Tidal Basin, Inc., the formal legal name for the hotel, purchased the property, undertook a study to determine the best use of the land and decided upon a boutique hotel.
“The views on that particular site are incredible and the tidal changes are incredible,” Crowley (pictured) told the commissioners.
The birth of the Tidal Lodge, the hotel’s name, is a return to the history of Branford from the late 1800s to the early 1900s when the town held 20 hotels, including five in Short Beach. “We are trying to keep the history of our hotels is what we are trying to do,” Crowley said at the P&Z meeting held in the community room at the Fire Department Thursday night.
Joe Sepot, the architect who designed the Brewery, is also the architect for the hotel, which will provide underground parking. He displayed photos of what the hotel will look like. The rooms would be larger than most hotel rooms, he said, 420 feet per room as opposed to about 325 at the average hotel. Each room would have an outdoor patio overlooking the Branford River. The hotel will also contain a small conference room and a small gym. The Tidal Lodge will provide breakfast and lunch, but will not have a restaurant, allowing patrons to visit many of Branford’s top town dining establishments, the P&Z learned.
Boardwalk and POCD
Lust told the P&Z that he decided to make his presentation to the P&Z last Thursday because the Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), a ten year state requirement for towns, is now underway in Branford and is moving quickly. So is Crowley who needs P&Z approval for the hotel.
Lust put up his own map of the area, showing the dimensions of the boardwalk, its relationship to the railroad tracks and its boundaries. Crowley and his team were eager to see his drawings. This was apparently the first time they had the opportunity to do so and they gathered round.
The town is also engaged in a Transit Oriented Design (TOD) study in the area near the Stony Creek Brewery, the town’s railroad station, the Atlantic Wharf housing development and the new Tidal Lodge Hotel.
The Atlantic Wharf project along Meadow Street will transform the area and the town’s downtown. Workmen are in their final stage of clearing the Atlantic Wire property on Meadow and Montowese Streets. This photo was taken last week. Plans for Atlantic Wharf call for 205 apartments, featuring 30 studio units; 125 one-bedroom units; and 50 two-bedroom units. Of the 10 buildings, six will have retail, restaurants and commercial units on the first floor. The other four will be strictly residential. There will be underground public parking.
Lust told the P&Z that “The town’s idea for a boardwalk was a conception until the POCD got moving. We realized that we have to speed things up as it was moving along so fast. Besides Crowley liking the idea, Lust said the DEEP agency and the Army Corps of Engineers “have been very supportive. They have looked at the plans and they have liked it.”
Lust said everyone was enthusiastic about the town’s boardwalk project. “It really is in the right place at the right time,” he said.
The hotel will attract visitors, who with the addition of the new boardwalk, new pier, and kayak launch on a waterfront lot, will be able to go to the Thimble Islands in Stony Creek or visit the Town Green, stores, and restaurants, Crowley said.
The South Montowese Street property where the boardwalk ends and the pier and dock would be located is owned by the Branford Land Trust (BLT), which has heard preliminary concept presentations of both projects but is waiting for more details and the negotiation of an agreement with the town before agreeing to the projects. The BLT owns a small park area dedicated to the Branford River and its history.
Lust said that Bruce & Johnson, a nearby boat marina, has offered to become involved in the project, providing services needed to remove and reinstall the ramp and the floating dock seasonally.
Joe Vaiuso, a longtime member of the P&Z, was delighted with the boardwalk/hotel project. “It fits perfectly with all the other projects coming together,” he said of the remaking of the old Atlantic Wire Company property into Atlantic Wharf, the brewery, and now the boutique hotel. “It’s perfect timing,” he said.
Lust observed that the TOD has examined how people get to Branford, specifically by car, by train and by bus. “What about people coming up the river? Up the Branford River as transient boaters. They are coming to Branford by water and they need dinghy dockage for their small boats,” he said, There are close 2,000 slips and moorings on the Branford River, many of which are used by transient boaters. Dinghy docks give them direct access to the downtown. Boaters need a destination. They want to have something to do.”
Lust said the marinas in the area are deeply interested in the town boardwalk project, which will include dockage for small dinghy boats. Lust said in an interview afterwards that the town plans to apply for a permit sometime in 2018.
A Change to the Original PDD
Gregg T. Burton (pictured), Crowley’s attorney, also asked that the P&Z modify the original Anchor Reef Planned Development District (PDD) by creating a new PDD to be named the Branford River PDD. This new PDD would remove the hotel from the Anchor Reef PDD. It made sense to do this, Burton said, because the hotel is solely for commercial use while the Anchor Reef project is for housing use only. Given the historical use of hotels along the waterways of Branford, this newest hotel should be viewed as strictly commercial, the attorney said. After a long discussion, the P&Z created the new PDD.
Andres asked the commission for their thoughts on creating on new PDD instead of staying with the original Anchor Reef PDD. Vaiuso said that it made sense. He said these were two separate properties. “I think it makes sense since that section was commercialized anyway. And it is still being used commercially as it was intended to.”
Marci Palluzzi, a P&Z Commissioner, raised a series of questions about changing the scope of a PDD. At one point she said, “It’s almost like we need guidelines for our PDDs.”
Chuck Andres, chair of the P&Z, said he was mindful of DEEP’s public access concerns and to that end encouraged the commissioners to discuss the public access easement at the hotel that would enable the boardwalk to be built and the public to have walkway access to the river. (In 2012, when the Anchor Reef PDD Master Plan was revised, the P&Z ordered the owner to complete a public access walkway. Full access to the walkway has not yet been accomplished. )
The emergence of the boardwalk provides one way for the public to have access to a nearby waterfront area.
Palluzzi said that initially the PDD “was a mixed plan.” She said she understood the need for private spaces. “But there is also an unfettered need for public use. So it is good that the brewery and the hotel will expand in that area.”
After the discussion, Andres closed the public hearing.
DEEP Raises Concerns about Public Access
Carol Szymanski, an environmental analyst for DEEP, the state’s environmental agency, told the P&Z in a recent letter that before another project gets underway, it was time to for the Anchor Reef Company to understand that it had “failed to comply with numerous (public) coastal access obligations imposed by its zoning permits.” There has been no enforcement of prior P&Z orders to allow for public access at certain places in the Anchor Reef area. It is not clear why.
Attorney Burton told the P&Z in a reply letter that “DEEP mistakenly believes the Anchor Reef PDD to be one large project owned and operated by one developer. … Tidal Basin does not own 60 Maple St.,” the site of Anchor Reef apartments.
Burton, who represents Crowley, told the commission that the hotel will grant an easement for public access, a 10-foot easement…. We anticipate a boardwalk,” he told the commission. “In granting that easement for public access, we would facilitate that boardwalk.”
He added that that Tidal Basin, the hotel’s company, would provide at 10-foot access easement for the public from Indian Neck Avenue to the mean high tide line. “Not only will this easement provide access to the water, but it is also critical to the Town’s plans to construct a public walkway at or below the mean high tide line. As further mitigation of any adverse impact,” he said, “Tidal Basin has offered to pay up to $50,000 toward the construction of that public walkway,” contingent upon, among other things, approval of the application.”
Still unresolved is the exact nature of the width of the easement, which was originally listed as 12 feet, but may now be at 10 feet, according to various documents.
Szymanski, the environmental analyst for DEEP, also told the P&Z by letter that the proposed walkway appears to be abutting tidal wetlands “We ask that the walkway be narrowed from the proposed 12 feet to 8 feet and moved landward so that tidal wetlands are not adversely impacted.” That may or may not happen.
When the commission debated the hotel approval later in the evening, Andres, the chair, said his major concern in approving the project is “what if it doesn’t happen. Then we are left with an easement to nowhere.” After others added their opinion, including Burton, it was agreed that the developer would pay $50,000 toward the boardwalk if the project is completed within five years. It not, the amount would drop to $25,000.