Costco Coming?

With PermissionA 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.”

Marcia  ChambersOne 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.

Marcia Chambers PhotoMancini 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.

Marcia Chambers PhotoDaniel 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.&#8221. 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. 


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posted by: Maria on February 11, 2011  10:15am

Bring it on. If they are willing to develop the property properly and in a responsible manner, then why no7?

The area lends itself well to such development given the current businesses in the immediate area and the ease of access off 95.

Build the grand list and bring amenities to the area that many will benefit from. Costco is a class act and a brand respeced by many.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on February 11, 2011  1:19pm

This type of development is what caused the financial crash of 2008.
Since the implementation of Euclidean zoning across the United States beginning in the 1930s, development of housing, retail and job centers have been increasing standardized to a point where an old New England town like Branford is indistinguishable from Omaha, Nebraska or Pheonix, Arizona. Financial and insurance institutions used this increasing standardization of buildings to standardize financing, insuring and loaning practices. As industry in the United States began evaporating to over seas locations, the burden to support our immense economy relied more heavily on finance, which lead to major congressional lobbying for less regulation so that a credit and debt-based financial system could emerge. With the repeal of Glass Steagal, things really began to spiral out of control. Mortgage backed securities were being bundled together by the thousands and resold to foreign investors, inflating the market and eventually collapsing it. Single use, automobile dependent strip mall, office park, housing subdivision development like the one proposed in this article is precisely the type of standardized development that fits perfectly into the existing system for financing, insuring and loaning, which will lead to another financial crash.
Additionally, 65 cents of every dollar spent in chain wholesaler like CostCo is sucked out of the local economy and consolidated in the top managerial staff of the corporation. The elaborate and unnecessary sequence of roads and parking are also based on archaic standards that contribute to unsafe roads, encourage dangerous driving habits and waste energy with their construction. This type of development also increases car dependency, which contributes to the national home mortgage crisis because families cannot support a single family house and a car for each driver.

posted by: Branflake on February 11, 2011  8:17pm

This really does seem like an acceptable spot for this building and its use. The roads are OK. The southbound i95 traffic can get right off into it. The land is junk, a deep gulley then a high mound and it will take six months of cut and fill before anything other than tadpoles and pollywaugs happen there. But better more user freindly wetlands can be created elsewhere. The site is alongside the highway and fronts an industrial park and truck stop row. Popcorn chicken and Deisal fuel. It ain’t exactly Yellowstone Park. Guilford folks will come via 95. Branford folks will cut in behind Stop&Shop;.
As a ten year phased project,portions of which are the carrots that allow us to turn our eye, and put this monster in the juicy ditch, we call wetlands, the developers should post a bond equal to the amount necaessary to complete the project in it’s entirelty, no just the roads and pipes. They should post a full build out bond. Otherwise here comes Costco and the next thing you know STu Lenarrd wants inn and Wayne cries foul and he wants a mega box on his “farm” too and on and on. The developers might run out of money filling in the deep ditch at the end of the Inustrial RD opens tha can of worms and were stuck with this big box and none of better tax generating booty, like the office and medical buildings. Then the say you allowed Costco, the lands vacant, we want a BJ’s and Lowes and a Kmart. Make’m build out their ten year plan and put the money for it in the town’s control to insure it gets built. BranFlake says “keep things regular”.

posted by: Walt on February 12, 2011  7:35am

As a Hamdenite who quit Costco when it moved to Milford,(  too far away for the long treks to be worthwhile)  I’d look forward to its location in Branford.

Costco is the best of the warehouse clubs,  with Sam’s Club second and BJ’s in North Haven ( of which I am a member) back in third place,

Consumer Reports studies   also rate Costco as the best chain for consumers.

Jon Hopkins always cheers for return to the 1800’s with only horse and buggy, bikes and horse-drawn trolleys for transportation,  which will never happen unless the whole country goes down-the-drain

A modern Costco will attract much business and will help Branford with taxes and employment problems.

Hope it gets approval.

posted by: Branford Taxpayer on February 12, 2011  9:35am

It is good to see the Town and private developers working together to implement a properly planned and sensibly located project.  Costco offers some real value, and from a traffic perspective, the location is a pretty good one.  Development is inevitable, but this isn’t bad.  I won’t have to drive all the way to Milford for our Costco runs, and the Town of Branford’s tax roll gets a nice boost (better us than those foolish folks in Guilford).  Sadly, there is one big problem—the wetlands.  If the IW commission approves the filling of 2.3 acres of wetlands so we can build a Costco, shame on them.  Doing so would turn every previous wetland-protection decision they’ve ever made into a joke.  Everyone, please, let’s make this a home-run by figuring a way to make the project happen without destroying the wetlands.

posted by: Kevin O'Neill on February 13, 2011  4:45pm

The current Inland Wetland policy includes a provision that allows filling of wetlands to take place as long as twice the area filled is established and maintained as wetlands. These developers are willing to comply with this regulation and have demonstrated with their submission compliance.This wetland as with much of the wetlands in town are a direct result of the federal highway project for I-95 and the Amtrak rail line, both having disrupted the natural flow of water in the area. Established rules are being followed with this plan and the commissioners should follow their own guidelines when reviewing this proposed development. This is a desirable project for the town of Branford that brings with it additional revenues for the benefit of the residents.

posted by: scjerry on February 13, 2011  8:26pm

I’ll start this comment with a questions, and in later comments get to the meat of the problems I see with this proposal. The provision for wholesale retail club sours this entire proposal IMHO.

1) Increased employment. Isn’t it true that most service employees that work in Branford can’t afford to live here and commute from outside of the town borders? What is the real impact on Branford employment?
2) Tax revenue increases. Isn’t it true that the $500,000 estimates from many can also be equaled by 20 high-end residental properties?
3) Long term planning. Why did Curagen get away with opting out of their obligations to the town to put a biotech facility on the Bittersweet Farms property? Were full-build bonds even considered, ala Brandflake’s suggestion?
4) Long term planning. Why did the reconfiguration of Exit 56 some fifteen + years ago not take into consideration mixed-use retail of the available near-by-properties and the significant increases in traffic that would be generated? If not considered, why change the rules now?
5) Why is Costco characterized as NOT a “box store” by the town administration (a warehouse, indeed) and thus dismissive of the incredible traffic and quality-of-life impacts on Stony Creek residents? Has the administration ever tried to get into Milford’s Costco facility, with their gas station?
6) Why is the town caving in to Costco’s “do it our way or the highway” demands on Exit 53 siting? It’s our town. Do we need the tax revenue so badly? See Question 2.
7)Why isn’t the Exit 56 area zoned for light industry, research, education, long-term care facilities, but NOT high-traffic volume retail? See question 4. Why is high-traffic retail not restricted to Exit 53 and the Branford Hill?
8)Why is our planning process so short sighted?

posted by: At Last on February 15, 2011  12:00pm

I agree with scjerry- Curagen’s arrogant and poorly planned ‘development’ resulted in the devastation of what was a nice little collection of craft stores and artists is unforgivable. The ‘economic climate’ card played by them is nothing more than an excuse for incompetent corporate leadership and sloppy planning for which they should really have been made accountable.