A 135-acre complex featuring a medical center, offices, single-family homes, apartments, small retail shops, and a wholesale retail club—widely believed to be Costco—could be coming to Branford at the Bittersweet Farm site near exit 56.
But the developers—local businessmen who already own the land—face an unprecedented challenge with inland-wetland issues. So the team brought their proposal for the Bittersweet Master Plan Development to the Inland Wetlands Commission Thursday night for an informal presentation to gain input from the commissioners.
“We’re one of the first people… who are really studying this conceptually for the first time as a master plan,” said project engineer John Mancini of BL Companies in Meriden.
Mancini, who has overseen several large projects in Branford, including Wal-Mart, pointed out that the Bittersweet developers have a vested interest in the property because they own it, rather than just having an option to purchase it. “Branford businessmen and residents own this land outright and are looking to do something on this land.”
The site includes more than 80 acres at 777-779 East Main St. that once served as the site of Bittersweet Farm, and almost 50 acres at 21 Sycamore Way that were never developed. The properties are owned by Bittersweet Partners LLC and Alterra Holdings LLC and for the first time are now combined as one.
First Selectman Anthony “Unk” DaRos, who did not attend the meeting, supported the master plan concept for the land, saying it bodes well for the environment.
“This is an opportunity to develop one major, large tract of land that is designed for this type of development,” DaRos said in an interview. “People will come in and build with some sense of control and respect for the land and what is good to put there.”
A master plan gives the developer the ability “to build to the topography, which I have been harping on for years,” DaRos said. “It takes a little bit better builders, better architects, a little bit better engineers to build to the land…but it is certainly a lot friendlier. Just because there is a valley doesn’t mean you have to fill it and just because there is a mountain doesn’t mean you have to level it.”
One of the owners is Michael Belfonti, president and CEO of Belfonti Associates in Hamden, a real estate development and investment company founded in 1980. Another owner is Alfred J. Secondino, whose family has operated A. Secondino & Sons Inc. general contracting company in Branford since 1929. Both men attended the meeting.
“It’s a big site and we have been working closely over the past year with some town staffers,” Mancini said.
According to Mancini, the project would feature a three-story medical building, similar to the Shoreline Medical Center in Guilford; and several one-story office buildings. There would be 34 single-family homes which he described as being on the luxurious side; and a three-story apartment building similar to Avalon Bay in North Haven. The residential areas would be flanked by a small retail area which could include a bank and a restaurant. One of the key components was identified on the artist’s rendering as a wholesale retail club.
“There is strong interest by a wholesale retailer,” Mancini said, but he and the owners declined to name the retailer although their site map refers to a “wholesale retail club.” It would be located off East Industrial Rd. with an easy entry off I-95 at Exit 56.
It is widely known that Costco is looking at the Bittersweet site, along with three other sites in town, all near Exit 56 for a possible new location for its proposed 150,000-square-foot store. The search began after the company’s plans to build in Guilford fell apart in October. The unveiling of the project was not a Costco hearing. No representatives from the company were there.
DaRos told the Eagle he has not changed his mind about big box stores. “I don’t think they are good for Branford. In this case, Costco is not the average run-of-the mill big box.” He described it as a warehouse.
Mancini said the “economic drivers” for the project are a wholesale retail club, the medical center and the apartments. “There’s discussion with all of those players now, even in this economy.” He said the entire project would be completed in phases. “The build-out we’re contemplating is a minimum of 10 years,” he said, noting that the project would be “a huge tax-generator for the town.”
However, the first step in the approval process begins with the Inland Wetlands Commission, and the commissioners expressed concerns about the extent of the impact.
Mancini said the area includes 35 acres of wetlands, with additional acreage that is sloped and in the upland review area, totaling about 65 percent of the total area. He said they would be filling 2.3 acres of wetlands, an extraordinary amount, commissioners said. Other wetlands would be disturbed during the 10 years of construction.
Daniel Shapiro, who chairs the IW commission, Shapiro remarked on the 2.3 acres of wetlands that would be filled and said he cannot recall a recent project that impacted such a large area. “That would be unprecedented,” Shapiro said.
“This is not just a lot of filling, this is beyond anything we have dealt with” in recent years, said commissioner Dr. Richard Orson. The wetlands filling proposed, he said, is at the lowest point of the property, which receives the end of “all this water.”. Yet, this is where you want the most intense development. I would look very heavily at this area,” Orson said.
“Understood. I totally understand where you are going with this,” Mancini said, but added that the total number of acres has to be considered.
Shapiro pointed out that any wetlands that are disturbed must be replaced at a 2-1 ratio.
“We have designed areas to meet and exceed the 2-1 mitigation,” Mancini said. He said the 35 acres of wetlands gives them “ample opportunity” to restore and improve the existing wetlands, some of which are eroding.
Commissioner John Rusatsky asked if the (Costco) warehouse could be placed on the upper portion of the site, not the lower portion.
Commissioner Dr. Wesley Vietzke said much of Branford presents the same wetland and topographical challenges for developers. “That should be not a problem, but a challenge” to build without destroying the land.
“There are ledges and low lands all over town. There are ways to develop. Every big store does not have to be a box on a flat piece of land,” Vietzke said.
“I understand,” Mancini said.
“I hope you do,” Vietzke replied slowly.
Following the meeting, Secondino, Belfonti and Mancini spoke with the Eagle. “We’re very excited about developing this,” Secondino said. “It will be a huge benefit to the town of Branford. It’s a very large project to undertake.”
Secondino and Belfonti both said that if the town’s regulatory boards won’t allow a wholesale retail club on the site, they would probably not move forward with any of the project.
Mancini said they will discuss the feedback from the commissioners and make decisions about moving forward. He said they don’t know when or if they will bring a formal application to Inland Wetlands, but that a best-case scenario would be “a couple months.”
Mancini said the comments that gave him the most concern were the ones about the impact on the wetlands. One commissioner, James Killelea, noted that the decade long development of the project would have a ripple effect upon the wetlands. “How will you handle that,” he asked.
The Bittersweet Farms property, which is on State Register of Historic Places, has an interesting history. Once a chicken farm owned by the Wallace family, the area gained acclaim since the 1970s as an artist colony and craft village, featuring art studios and specialty shops.
In 2001, CuraGen Corp., a biotech pharmaceutical development firm, purchased the Bittersweet Farm property from Marc Nevas of Westport for $2.3 million. About two dozen artists and shop owners were evicted after the sale.
CuraGen planned to consolidate its Branford and New Haven facilities and build a 437,000 square-foot headquarters and research facility at Bittersweet Farm. The company received approvals for the project from Inland-Wetlands and the Planning and Zoning Commission and Mancini referred to those approvals in his presentation.
However in 2002, CuraGen announced that because of the economic climate, it was restructuring its business, laying off employees and postponing the construction plans.
In 2005, Bittersweet Partners LLC and Alterra Holdings LLC purchased the former Bittersweet Farm property from CuraGen Corp for $2.9 million.
Alterra Holdings purchased 21 Sycamore Road in 2009 for $750,000.
Costco wanted to open a store in Branford in 2005 but the Zoning Board of Appeals denied their variance request, saying there was poor access and the site was too small.
Last year, the company was making plans to open a store on the “Rock Pile” on Route 1 in Guilford, but withdrew their application in October 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.
The proposed site in Branford would not be located on East Main St., the road Route 1 in Guilford flows into. But a new road off East Main would be built, Mancini told the Commission, to connect East Main to East Industrial Rd.