An alarm raised by North Branford citizens in 2014 was finally heard last night. By a close vote of 3-2, the town's zoning commission denied J.J. Sullivan Inc. (Guilford) the ability to build a 60,000-gallon bulk propane storage/retail facility at 40 Ciro Road.
The application was denied based on zoning regulations Section 41.2.2, "neighborhoods, specifically regarding the inability to protect property values," Section 42. 1 "not in conformance with the Plan of Conservation and Development" and section 42.2 "the access on the property."
The vote arrived shortly after the end of a three-part public hearing which consistently drew a staunch, but small group of citizen opponents. Their number may not have matched the opposition crowds of sign-carrying residents filling town meetings at the start of the application process in 2014, but the message was still the same: put the safety of citizens ahead of profit.
But, even as the Planning and Zoning Commission (PZC) prepared to vote on March 16, many citizens still weren't sure if they had been heard. In his closing arguments, J.J. Sullivan's attorney, Jeffrey Beatty (Guilford) reiterated his assertion that the PZC had no choice but to approve the application.
"Since the application satisfies all the criteria of your regulations, in my opinion the only legally supportable conclusion this commission can lawfully reach is the approval of the application," Beatty told the PZC.
Much of Beatty's site plan application summary included instructions to the PZC on its limitations to administer and apply the requirements of zoning regulations as written. At one point, commissioner Fran Lescovich interrupted Beatty, saying, "...we on the board and certainly [the Town Planner] know our obligations, know what the site plan entails, and know the ramifications of approving or denying. So if you have nothing to say in reference to this particular site plan, then please keep your remarks to that alone."
Her comment drew applause and a spark of hope in the crowd. More would follow as the PZC closed the hearing and began to deliberate at approximately 9:30 p.m. Lescovich and PZC vice-chairman William Galdenzi cited specific zoning regulations which pointed to the application being out of compliance. More support for the motion to deny came from PZC alternate member Tricia Mase. Commissioners Ron Siena and Dave Hultgren weighed in with reasons as to why the PZC was obligated to approve. The motion to deny was then supported by majority vote by Lescovich, Galdenzi and Mase. PZC chair Harry Dulak was absent for the vote, due to work travel.
As soon as the vote to deny the application tipped the balance by a 3-2 majority, the crowd jumped to its feet. Among those cheering and hugging one another was resident Nancy Clow. It was Clow who first spoke out, at a sparsely attended PZC public hearing in 2014, against a pivotal text amendment application to allow bulk propane storage at the Ciro Road industrial site, which is accessible from Route 80 and dead-ends within several hundred feet of residential neighborhoods. On that night in 2014, the then-sitting PZC closed the public hearing and voted to adopt the bulk propane zoning amendment. Last night, a newly-seated PZC, which includes four past members of the 2014 commission, found in favor of the town's citizens with its vote.
"I feel wonderful," Clow told Zip06/The Sound, moments after the vote. "I think they did their due diligence now which they didn't do in August of 2014; when I was the only one that was there to object to it, and just wanted them to look at why they were changing the text amendment. I'm so happy. It really is wonderful."
The controversial 2014 text amendment vote, coupled with 40 Ciro Road's ownership by then-sitting Town Council member, Donald Fucci, fueled citizens' outrage at as J.J. Sullivan Inc. went forward with its application in Sept. 2014. Next, stalled by the Inland Wetlands Watercourses Agency (IWWA) inability to vote on the application, Beatty appealed to the Dept. of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) in January 2015 for the needed wetlands permit. As the DEEP review began, North Branford Citizens Against Bulk Propane Storage (NBCABPS), led by resident Chris Kranick, hired an attorney. Kranick then applied for a zoning text amendment application to place a 5,000-gallon cap and additional safety standards on future bulk propane facilities. The PZC approved the cap in March 2015, with Beatty cautioning them the cap could not be retroactively applied to J.J. Sullivan's 2014 application. Nearly two years later, in February 2017, DEEP told the town to issue the wetlands permit. Within days, NBCABPS filed a law suit against the town and Fucci and also began the process for a potential temporary injunction to halt any decision made by the PZC on 40 Ciro Road. However, DEEP's decision started a 35-day clock obligating the PZC to decide on the 2014 site plan development application within 35 days. Although the PZC did not have to open the review with a public hearing, it decided it would; knowing the hearing would need to open on March 2 and end with a vote by March 16.