Costco, the national warehouse retailer, has announced a “business decision” not to build a 158,000-square-foot store in Branford off Exit 56. First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove said in an interview with the Eagle yesterday he would work on finding the best strategy to increase the commercial tax base in town.
Cosgrove said he was a “little bit disappointed. It would have been a good project for the town.” He said Costco did not say why it had not resubmitted the application it withdrew last April after it became clear the Inland Wetlands Commission would turn down Costco on a number of grounds. The developer’s option to purchase the Costco property expires in March.
Throughout his two campaigns for first selectman, Cosgrove championed Costco’s plans for Branford. He said that bringing the warehouse store to town would be good for the economy and would boost the commercial tax base. That was pivotal in light of the two major building projects that the town is facing.
The Walsh Intermediate School has a proposed total price-tag of $85.9 million, with a possibility of $30.3 million in state reimbursement. The Senior Center/Community House expansion is estimated to cost $12.1 million.
Cosgrove, who has run and won the town’s top elective office twice on a “Bring Costco to Branford” slogan, said Costco’s decision came via letter from the store’s corporate headquarters in the state of Washington. It arrived on Monday, roughly 10 months after Costco withdrew its application to the Inland Wetlands Commission (IWC) shortly before the commission was scheduled to vote.
Ray Ingraham, the majority leader of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM ) and the chair of the Branford Republican Party, didn’t waste any time. An ardent Costco supporter, he quickly took to Facebook, announcing a petition for people to sign “to ask Costco to reconsider!” He said, “I will ensure the list will be presented to the First Selectman and all town bodies.”
Two outside intervenors opposed the Branford Costco project both because of its potential impact on the area’s wetlands and downstream lands and because of its size, both in building and parking spaces. One was the Branford Land Trust and the other was Branford Citizens for Responsible Development. (BCRD). Costco was unwilling to downsize the project, an alternative that was suggested by outside consultants hired by the commission. Both the BCRD and the BLT declined comment on Costco’s decision today.
‘If Costco had decided to re-apply, it might well have faced a second round of challenges from these groups or others. These challenges could wind up in long, expensive court battles, which typically Costco likes to avoid.
One Lasting Impact
In the end the Costco application had one lasting impact. Cosgrove removed experienced commissioners from IWC, leaving only three of the 10 who served before Costco applied for a Wetlands permit. The expectation was that Costco would come before a less experienced commission.
The store would have been part of a 44-acre Planned Development District (PDD) that included three undeveloped properties. Costco would have been built on a 22-acre property near Exit 56 owned by Wayne Cooke and the Cooke Family Corporations. In addition to the Cooke property, the other two undeveloped sites are owned by Charles E. Weber Jr. and Al Secondino, and their 595 Corporate Circle corporation, who own a 16.56-acre parcel where six buildings were proposed; and trustee Peter G. Mandragouras, who owns a 1.73-acre site, where one building was proposed.
Weber and Secondino are the two principals of Orchard Hill Partners, LLC. Orchard Hill had filed notice with the town that they have an option to purchase the 22 acres of Cooke family land that is part of the PDD and the proposed location of the Costco. The option to purchase is in effect until March 29, 2017. The land has been appraised at $3,010,800, according to public records.
Costco might have sought to extend the option by six months, but the giant warehouse company decided not to.
Costco History ‘s in Branford
Costco wanted to open a store in Branford in 2005 but the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals denied its variance request, saying there was poor access and the site was too small. The property was a 13-acre site at 250 N. Main, next to where Clancy’s Funeral Home is now located.
In 2010, the company was making plans to open a store on the “Rock Pile” on Route 1 (off Exit 57) in Guilford, but withdrew its application just before public hearings were scheduled to begin. There was a vocal opposition to the company’s proposal, in part because of traffic and road concerns.
In 2011, an informal presentation was made to the IWC for a 135-acre complex at the former Bittersweet Farm property, not far from Exit 56, that would have included a medical center, offices, single-family homes, apartments, small retail shops, and a wholesale retail club—widely acknowledged to be Costco. After discussion with the IWC, the developers did not submit an application.
Costco’s latest effort came in November 2013 when an early site plan was submitted to the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z). This is the plan the town has been grappling with over the last three-plus years.
Hundreds of residents attended public hearings before the P&Z and many spoke for and against the store. In the end the Costco application squeaked through with the P&Z voting 3-2 after its longtime chair Ellsworth McGuigan cast the deciding vote before announcing his retirement and leaving the room.
The P&Z approved the Master Plan and PDD in July 2015. The detailed site plans were then submitted to the IWC, and would have eventually gone to the P&Z if a Wetlands permit had been approved.
Shortly after Costco pulled its Wetlands application, the other property owners followed suit.
Despite the length and intensity of the meetings over more than two-years, the public never got to hear the IWC commissioners’ evaluation of the proposed project because in April Costco withdrew the application before deliberations began. In addition, the outside consultants never submitted a final report because Costco’s attorney, Tom Cody, objected to their involvement.
“There’s A Lot of History There”
Asked if he had talked with Costco executives personally, Cosgrove said, “No, I have not.”
What he received, he said, was a letter, which consisted of one paragraph.
Dave Messner, senior vice president for Real Estate and Development in the Issaquah, Washington office, wrote, “Although Costco has made the business decision not to move forward with the proposed location on the Cooke property in Branford,” the company wanted to thank him and his administration “for your cooperation in our efforts to bring Costco to the community. We appreciate your leadership and willingness to work with us.”
The Eagle asked Messner today why Costco would not re-apply to Branford.
“There’s a lot of history there,” he said. “It kind of speaks for itself.”
Asked if the company had chosen an alternate site, Messner replied, “We have not chosen another site.”
The Eagle asked Cosgrove if he might try to change Costco’s mind, Cosgrove did not answer directly. He did say he told the town’s Economic Development Commission about Costco’s decision Wednesday morning.
Cosgrove said that he felt strongly that Costco would have helped “to maintain the level of services that we have in the town. I certainly thought Costco was a good project as far as achieving that goal as well as providing jobs and convenience for residents in Branford.”
“Our strategy is still in its early stage,” he said, but he did indicate he might follow up with Costco “at least to get an understanding of their (Costco’s) decision.”
The IWC, which had been in the process of revising its regulations, did so shortly after Costco withdrew its application. However, the commission later enacted a 6-month stay on the new regulations, which are minor in nature, during which time Costco could have reapplied under the old regulations. The decision to revise the regulations and vote on them last May, drew a harsh response from Cosgrove who called the commission’s vote “an unprecedented abuse of power.”
There are six other Costco stores in the state, according to its web site – Milford, Waterbury, Brookfield, Norwalk, Enfield, and New Britain, which opened in October 2015. A Costco in East Lyme was approved by that town’s Inland Wetlands last year, and was approved by P&Z in October. The Eagle asked Messner about the East Lyme location and he said it was too soon to comment.
But East Lyme First Selectman Mark Nickerson said the East Lyme Costco project is moving forward and they are waiting for state traffic approvals. But local approvals are in place.
“It’s all systems go, ” Nickerson told the Eagle today. He said the town does not have many large retailers. “This will be our biggest tax payer by far, “he said.
Another Anchor Store?
Cosgrove told the Eagle yesterday he had no other anchor store in mind for the 22.6-acre site where Costco was supposed to be built. Costco was supposed to be the major anchor store for six other commercial buildings on land owned by developers Weber and Secondino, and one on an adjacent smaller property owned by a trustee.
It appears the other stores hitched their stars to a Costco and without that draw it is uncertain if they will go forward. The other stores were part of the master plan process. They were not identified. Cosgrove said he did not know their plans. Attempts to reach Weber and Secondino this morning were not successful.
The last sessions of the IWC’s Costco hearings were acrimonious after allegations of impropriety surfaced
Attorney Cody (pictured), a partner at Robinson & Cole in Hartford, sent a letter last April to the IWC citing vague reasons for the company’s decision to withdraw its application eight months after it was filed. Cody noted that Costco had “previously expressed to the commission specific concerns about the manner in which this application has been reviewed and processed by staff,” and that they “remained concerned that the issues Costco has raised have not been fully resolved.”
Final Wetlands Hearing
At the final IWC hearing in April, Cody asked the commissioners not to consider any issues from the March 9 peer review letter when they made their deliberations. He did not object to the December and January peer review letters.
The outside consultants from Milone & MacBroom Inc. (MMI) had been reviewing plans and testimony and had given reports at the previous hearings. As is customary, the consultants were hired by the IWC, but their fees were paid by the applicants. Cody previously wrote that he would not pay for a final report nor for MMI to attend any additional hearings. Cody’s letter said he had concerns about the process used to compile the March 9 peer review letter
The peer review consultants questioned the size of the Costco warehouse in their March 9 letter, and stated that a smaller building would have less impact on the wetlands and watercourses. Costco disagreed with that conclusion.
Engineers from Milone & MacBroom sent a written objection to the commission regarding the allegations, stating the consultants “take exception to any innuendo or statement that any of our work may have been coerced. We have followed typical procedures in conducting our work, used professional judgment in providing our opinions, and stand behind the work that we have conducted as part of this process.”
The controversy began March 21, 2016, when the Branford Seven blog site made allegations that Inland Wetlands personnel had undue influence on the March 9 review letter.
On March 24, 2016, Cosgrove issued a statement saying the town would begin “a careful review of the issues and information raised in the recent press report regarding the conduct of certain individuals involved in the Costco wetlands application process.” The results of that review have never been made public, despite questions from residents and the media over the past year..
Two of the questions the IWC would have weighed if Costco had not withdrawn were whether the proposed Costco and seven other commercial buildings would adversely impact the wetlands—and whether “prudent and feasible alternatives” could lessen the impact. Prudent and feasible alternatives are part of the IW regulatory law.
In the end, Costco’s decision to pull its application came as no surprise to many because it appeared the company was headed for a regulatory denial. Costco withdrew its application in April 2016. The action came after months of public hearings and just days before the IWC was set to begin deliberations prior to voting.
When Costco withdrew its application last April, whatever agreement and changes made to the application, especially those involving the Branford Land Trust, which it praised, were no longer binding.
So it was likely that resurrecting their application, would also resurrect the applications of the intervenors.