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On July 19, Wayne Cooke first publicly displayed a “Where’s Costco?” sign, while commenting at the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) steering committee meeting. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
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Last week, large lawn signs asking “Where’s Costco?” above the website address branfordfraud.com began cropping up around Branford. Wayne Cooke, a representative of the group behind signs, told The Sound they are responding to a question they feel many residents have been asking since Costco withdrew its application to build here in 2016.
A “Where’s Costco?” placard with the website has also been requested to appear periodically on BCTV, said Cooke, who has taken the lead among a group of landowners organizing the campaign. Cooke and his family own land at 573 East Main Street, where Costco was to build a 158,000 square-foot Costco warehouse store and 16-pump gas station. The other owners represent the rest of the development area, a 44-acre parcel off I-95 Exit.
In addition to Costco, the development was to include six additional, unnamed retail/commercial/restaurant businesses. Project development was halted when Costco withdrew its plans in 2016, citing issues with the town process during the inland wetlands site plan application review.
The Future of Exit 56
With regard to future development of the Exit 56 parcel, most recently, on July 12, Branford’s Planning & Zoning Commission voted 4-1 to grant an extension to file a site plan through July 2019. The extension was requested by the 44-acre parcel’s combined property owners: 595 Corporate Circle (owner of 569 East Main Street), Wayne Cooke Limited Partnership & Cooke Harrison Family Partnership (owner of 573 East Main Street), AHB, LLC (owner of 16 East Industrial Road), Peter G. Mandragouras (Trustee) & CVP Trust (owners of 20 East Industrial Road), and Connecticut Shellfish Company (owner of 26 East Industrial Road).
A few days later, on July 19, Cooke first publicly displayed a “Where’s Costco?” sign, while commenting at the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) steering committee meeting. During his comments, he alleged “corruption” led to the withdrawal of Costco (see the story at www.zip06.com).
“Get used to this. You’re going to see a lot of this sign, because I want the people in town know what happened to Costco. There’s no reason they should have left,” Cooke told the POCD committee.
Late last week, Cooke told The Sound he is working “in tandem” with the other Exit 56 parcel property owners on the “Where’s Costco?” campaign. As part of the website, a Facebook link allows viewers to comment. Cooke said the group is also using the Facebook page to “keep things current [with] different things that are happening at that point in time” and to “try to explain things a bit further.”
The online information shared, which Cooke said the group believes to be accurate, consolidates reports from meetings and local news stories and information obtained through the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, as well as a call for town hall to answer questions regarding any investigation into town staff’s handling of the inland wetlands application. A recent Facebook post by the group includes a response from the First Selectman’s Office to the group’s second request regarding an investigation. The town’s response letter, dated July 27, stated a memo on the matter, prepared by an attorney for the town, would not be disclosed as it was a privileged, preliminary draft as well as being subject to attorney/client privilege. The letter also states the town is confident its position on not disclosing the memo would prevail if it were subject an FOI request.
The “Where’s Costco?” group now intends to file a complaint with Connecticut FOI Commission, according to its Facebook post.
A Look Back
In an April 26, 2016 letter notifying the town of the withdrawal of Costco’s application, an attorney for Costco Wholesale Corp. noted the applicant had “previously expressed to the commission specific concerns about the manner in which this application has been reviewed and processed by wetlands staff. Although we continue to believe that the record is very clear that the pending application fully complies with all applicable regulations and state guidance documents, we remain concerned that the important issues Costco has raised have not been fully resolved. Accordingly, Costco Wholesale Corporation respectfully withdraws the pending inland wetlands permit application IW#15.11.01 effective immediately.”
While Costco had the option of re-submitting an application, in a brief note received at Branford Town Hall on Feb. 13, 2017, Costco informed First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove it would not resubmit an application.
The note, addressed to Cosgrove and signed by Costco Senior Vice President of Real Estate and Development Dave Messner, read, in its entirety, “Although Costco has made the business decision not to move forward with the proposed location on the Cooke property in Branford, we wanted to take this opportunity to thank you and your administration for your cooperation in our efforts to bring Costco to the community. We appreciate your leadership and willingness to work with us.”
Cooke told The Sound last week that the “Where’s Costco?” signs will continue to be posted periodically at different places around Branford. He said similar postcards are also being sent out as part of the awareness campaign.
“We’re putting the facts out there and letting the people decide for themselves,” said Cooke.
“The first step is so people understand accurately what the facts are,” Cooke said. “If we are accurate, and we believe that we are, is this acceptable—that you can have fraud occurring by town process, and say, ‘That’s okay’?”
The Sound asked Cooke if the group has reached out to Costco.
“I haven’t spoken with Costco for three months. They made it clear they’re going to East Lyme; they made it very clear why,” said Cooke, saying he was told “corruption” was the reason.
Costco hopes to break ground at exit 74 off of Interstate-95 in East Lyme this September and open by November 2019, according to NBC-CT.
Cosgrove on Costco
Speaking to The Sound late last week, Cosgrove had no comment on the sign campaign. Cosgrove did review his perspective on bringing Costco to Branford.
“There’s a number of benefits to having that business here, not only for the convenience of the residents who are asking for it, but also because it increases the tax base and provides decent-paying jobs [and] benefits to their employees,” said Cosgrove, adding, “I think my actions, as I’ve come into office, have been supportive of bringing Costco into town.”
Cosgrove said it was Costco’s decision to notify the town, by letter, that the company was no longer interested in pursuing development at Exit 56.
“Certainly, I still welcome Costco to come to town, as [with] other developments, as long as we focus on appropriate development. It certainly has the benefits that we’d like, and we should remain supportive,” said Cosgrove.
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