Canton controversy highlights statewide land use challenges
Two decades ago, drivers entering Canton from the east on Route 44 were greeted by a picturesque little golf course on the left and an 18th-century farmstead on the right. It felt like the country, small-town Connecticut.
Shortly thereafter, over the objection of many residents, these welcoming features were lost: The golf course was paved over for a mall, and the white farmhouse was replaced by a chain pharmacy.
So for many residents, the new symbolic gateway to the town became a wooded traprock ridge that looms over Route 44 further east, near the border with Simsbury. But that landmark is also now in jeopardy. A developer, Mark Greenberg, has proposed blasting and excavating part of the ridge for a 20-dispenser gas station, electric vehicle showroom and convenience store.
“I can’t believe we’re going through this again,” said Jane Latus, who heads a citizen’s group, Canton Advocates for Responsible Expansion, or C.A.R.E., formed after what she called “the golf course mistake” to promote sound land use in the town.
The Greenberg proposal has been the subject of several contentious public hearings over the past several months before the town’s planning and zoning commission. Hundreds of residents objected to it on aesthetic and environmental grounds; a few supported it. The commission may vote on special permits for the project at its meeting Wednesday night.
While the current proposal, like the golf course conversion, is a local issue, both offer a window into specific aspects of land use and regulation in the state — including a variety of environmental concerns and how they are handled.
The lesson many took from the replacement of the golf course was that the state’s heavy reliance on local property taxes can lead to unfortunate land-use decisions. Canton is one of the smallest towns in the state with a self-contained school system. The mall, The Shoppes at Farmington Valley, puts more in the municipal till than the golf course did.
A main point of contention on the Greenberg proposal is environmental, however. The development site sits about 1,400 feet from a state Superfund site, a former solvent processing operation, the J Swift Chemical Co. that was active from the 1950s to the early ’70s and has long since gone out of business. The company buried thousands of gallons of cancer-causing chemicals on the site, which began to leach into the groundwater.
The Superfund site was only partially cleaned. There is still a plume of pollution in the groundwater on the site. The concern is that blasting to level the site will cause the plume to migrate and endanger more of the area’s groundwater, or cause fissures that would lower well capacity.
The public hearings brought forth dueling experts. An engineer for the developer said it was “highly unlikely” that the project would disturb the plume; two hydrogeologists brought in by opponents said the risk was too great if it did.
State officials sided with the developer, with a caution. DEEP remediation official Ray Frigon said in a conversation with town staff that a negative impact is “highly unlikely” but no one person could ever say for sure that it won’t happen.
While it is not clear who is right, some residents and environmentalists who’ve followed the proposal wonder why this has to be an issue at all. Swift was designated as a state Superfund site 32 years ago. Why is it still contaminated?
“It’s astonishing that this is still a concern,” said Latus.
The awakening of the environmental movement in the 1970s brought forth a number of laws aimed at cleaner air and water. The federal Superfund program, formally the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, begun in 1980, aimed to clean up heavily polluted sites, such as the notorious Love Canal in upstate New York, that threatened public health.
The state created its own Superfund program, based on the federal model, several years later. The J Swift site in Canton was the first designee.
The town and state have spent upwards of $2 million to assess the site, bring public water to homes whose wells were polluted and take other actions, short of cleaning the plume.
To pay for the remediation, the state went after two successive owners of property, Gianfranco Galluzzo of Meriden, who owned the property from 1986 to 1994, and Cadle Properties, an Ohio concern, which has owned it since 1994. The state won a $9 million judgement against Galluzzo followed by a $2 million judgement against Cadle, but only a tiny percentage of the money — less than $200,000 from Cadle — has been collected, according to state records.
Cadle owes the town $1,127,331 in back taxes, according to the tax collector’s office, making it the town’s largest delinquent taxpayer.
The town has been reluctant to foreclose and inherit the cost, estimated in 2013 at $4.4 million, of cleaning the polluted site. Former First Selectman Richard Barlow said he had a handshake agreement for the state to clean the site in 2007. He proposed that the town acquire the site, the state clean it with Superfund money, then the town would sell it and give the state 90% of the proceeds. But he said neither Gov. M. Jodi Rell nor Gov. Dannel P. Malloy would front the funds.
There are 15 sites on the state Superfund list and 13 on the federal list. Four are on both lists. The usual procedure is to go after the responsible parties, as the state did in the Swift case. This is often successful, said Jan Czeczotka, the state Department of Energy and Environment Protection’s director of remediation. He cited the Broad Brook Mill site in East Windsor, which United Technologies Co., now part of Raytheon, helped clean up.
But when responsible parties cannot be found in the jurisdiction, that’s when the “Superfund” monies are supposed to kick in. This sometimes works. For example, state and federal authorities have a four-year, $100 million effort underway to clean the asbestos-laden Raymark sites in Stratford.
But, said Czeczotka, his department has to compete for bond funds with other priorities and thus far hasn’t been able to pay for the rest of the Swift site cleanup.
“It boils down to money,” he said.
There’s a car dealership on the old J Swift site. It’s been the subject of a complex, years-long legal battle over back rents and taxes.
With much of the state’s “soft” or easily buildable land such as the former Canton golf course already spoken for, developers often have had to blast rocky ledges to gain new sites. So, while there are no statewide figures to quantify it, state officials and contractors say there’s more blasting.
“People are developing undesirable pieces of property,” said Andrew Nagy, president of Blastech Inc., the blasting contractor for the Greenberg project.
Greenberg’s is one of the last open parcels along Route 44 in Canton. Blasting and excavation would remove an estimated 120,000 cubic yards of rock over 16 months.
Opponents of the project note, for one thing, that environmentalists have been trying to preserve traprock ridge lines for decades because they contain rare flora and fauna and are integral on the Connecticut landscape.
They also raise the question of whether blasting is adequately regulated in the state. There is certainly anecdotal evidence that blasting is problematic. For example, Canton resident and C.A.R.E. co-founder Theresa Sullivan Barger, a freelance journalist, uncovered testimony from a proposed bill in 2015 that would have made it easier for homeowners to report damage from blasting.
A hearing on the bill brought a dozen homeowners from around the state with heart-wrenching stories of cracks in foundations and roofs as well as polluted wells from nearby blasting. Some said they had great difficulty collecting insurance payments for the damage. The bill didn’t pass.
Those who use or transport explosives must be licensed by the state, but blasting permits are issued locally, by the fire marshal. How much blasting expertise or on-site supervision fire marshals provide seems to vary.
The DEEP issued blasting guidelines in 2019 that call for testing and monitoring of area wells before and after blasting. UConn hydrogeologist Dr. Gary Robbins thinks this should be mandatory.
A way to avoid more blasting is to create more density on land that is already developed. During the golf course brouhaha, critics noted that the stores in the new mall could have been distributed in the commercial areas along Route 44 in Avon and Simsbury and the golf course saved — but then Canton would not have gotten the added property tax revenue.
Now, said Latus, “Canton doesn’t need another gas station, especially one so big.”
Canton, it should be noted, has made considerable progress on land use in recent years, adopting a form-based zoning code, pursuing a hydroelectric project on the Farmington River and creating a special zone for the former Collinsville Axe factory, which recently attracted a potential developer.
Many remember Greenberg as the feisty Republican candidate who made three tries for the 5th Congressional District seat. He’s spent eight to nine months trying to get his project approved in Canton and is frustrated by the opposition.
“It’s completely irrational. I believe it’s great for the town,” he said in a telephone interview Monday. “We’ve shown that it will be completely safe, no environmental impact.”
He said the rocky outcrop that many see as the gateway to Canton is not even naturally occurring but was created when the state Department of Transportation straightened Route 44 years ago. He said he was open to reducing the size of the gas station.
He described the approval process as “unbearable” and said if his applications for special permits are turned down, he will appeal.
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