CHESHIRE — Town officials are hoping to see new economic growth in the north end of town now that roughly 50 acres of land is under municipal ownership.
On July 23, Gov. Ned Lamont signed a bill that allows Joseph Giulietti, commissioner for the Department of Transportation, to convey three state-owned parcels of land northeast of the Interstate 691 corridor. One of the parcels includes an existing commuter lot.
The town has five years to sell the parcels for economic development purposes. If not sold, the conveyance will be revoked and ownership of the land returns to the state. Proceeds from any sale are given to the state, while the town benefits from any future tax growth.
State Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, who had been working on securing the land since serving as a town councilor in 2017, was pleased that the bill passed. She said the conveyance does not put taxpayer dollars at risk.
“The area of land is really perfect for being able to add to the tax rolls and taking some heat off of homeowners … but it’s still located in the outskirts of town so that Cheshire can maintain its small-town feel,” she said.
Across the street at 1953 and 2037 Highland Ave. is approximately 100 acres owned by two LLCs — Tri-Star Development and Miller Napolitano and Wolf. The two LLCs recently received approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission to subdivide the properties into eight smaller lots, which they intend to develop.
Some town councilors hope changes in the north end will prompt developers to build in Cheshire.
“Those parcels have been up there for so long and there hasn’t been activity,” reflected Councilor Peter Talbot. “At this point, I’d be happy with development that resulted in some Grand List growth.”
Fellow Councilor Tom Ruocco hopes development on the properties removes some of the tax burden on residents and does not increase stress on town services, such as public safety.
“It’s so hard in this economic environment, but I would like to see something that just doesn’t put so much stress on the infrastructure, but it looks like they’ve run out of options,” Ruocco said.
During the PZC’s public hearing, a conceptual design of the northwest property submitted by the applicants included a mixed-use development, complete with a hotel, retail spaces, a medical facility, and residential properties.
“They feel that they’re out of options, and the only thing left is mixed use,” Ruocco said. “Frankly, I’m not supportive of mixed use. I just think there’s an impact on the town (and), over the long term, costs more.”
Talbot, however, supports the idea of a mixed-use development. He supported the outlet center previously proposed by WS Development. WS ultimately scrapped its project in 2015.
That’s not to say that Talbot does not support other uses for the land.
“If we got some people who were interested in it, we’d welcome it with open arms,” he said. “Industrial manufacturing, something along that line would be great as well. In a perfect world, it would be something that offered a retail component.”
Regarding the property just conveyed to Cheshire by the state, Town Planner Bill Voelker and Jerry Sitko, the town’s economic development coordinator, said that town officials will have to implement a marketing plan before attempting to sell the land to developers. The town is still waiting for Giulietti to identify specifically what land is being conveyed.
“Once we know what we’re talking about, we’re probably going to need to have the property surveyed and have some environmental assessments done,” Sitko said.
However, the properties on both sides of Highland Avenue have some issues — including a lack of access to public sewer lines — that could impact potential sales.
“It would seem to me that there’s pieces of a greater puzzle, and we all have to figure out how to arrive to figure out that puzzle at some point,” Voelker said.
Sitko said future developments on both sides of Highland Avenue will be dependent on the current market.
“Whatever happens up there is going to be market-driven,” he said. “We’re going to try to see if we can do something with the property, and we may not prevail, but we’re going to try.”
Promoting the property will take some time, Sitko added.
“It’s going to take us a while before we get to the point where the property will be marketed,” he said. “A lot of legwork has to be accomplished.”
First and foremost, town officials need to determine what land is being discussed. If the state wants to keep the commuter lot, for example, then the town needs to figure out ways to develop around the parking area.
The parcels also have steep topography changes and some wetlands, according to Voelker.
“We’re not trying to look the gift horse in the mouth, so to speak, (but) it’s just that there are procedural things that have to be done and there’s also the challenges of the property itself, and trying to find a way to market it,” Voelker said.
Despite that, Voelker believes the town has an asset with which to work.
“Clearly, there are advantages that can come our way out of this but, from a procedural and a site layout standpoint, it’s hard to estimate that,” he said.