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June 2, 2020
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Sports at Unilever Moves Ahead, though Pace May Disappoint

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A Sept. 9 approval from the Clinton Planning & Zoning Commission (PZC) for a proposed zoning exception to allow a commercial indoor recreation use in the Unilever property located at 1 John Street has the developer—and many in town—eager to see the long-empty site redeveloped. Plans to have the facility hosting indoor soccer as soon as October may be a hurdle too high, however, according to a town official.

The Approval

One of the conditions of the approval prohibited indoor shooting ranges as part of the potential uses. According to the town’s zoning regulations, an indoor shooting range was a use that could have been permitted on the site with the zoning exception passed. At a public hearing on the change last month, some members of the public expressed concerns over that possibility. However, Michael Massimino, the owner of the property, stated several times that there was no intention of pursuing a firing range as a use.

At the Sept. 9 meeting, PZC member Michael Rossi made a motion to include as a condition to approval a prohibition on an indoor firing range as a permitted use. That motion was approved unanimously.

A second condition that was stipulated in the approval by the commission is a requirement that the final plans for the septic system design on the property be filed with the land use office and PZC.

Speaking with the Harbor News/, Massimino said, “It’s been a couple of years of due diligence on the property, so we’re very excited to move forward.”

Massimino said he couldn’t disclose much information at press time, but said there is one tenant who wants to move into a portion of the property to put in indoor turf. According to the developer, that tenant could be ready to take occupancy in October. He also added that a website should be up and running within the next 30 to 60 days.

“Now that we have final approval, our next step is going through the permitting process,” said Massimino.

The total square footage of the building located at 1 John Street is 312,345, but the area affected by the approved change of use is 217,471 square feet.

Massimino said that one tenant is prepared to use about 44,480 square feet for indoor turf; as that tenant wanted to get to work in early October, getting the approval at the Sept. 9 meeting was something of paramount importance.

PZC member Michael Hughes stated that while he approved of the use, he voted “No” on the motion to approve because he felt that the PZC should grant approval on each section of the property affected by the application, not the entire area.

Massimino said there are no other tenants for the rest of the space yet, however he is speaking with potential tenants who have expressed interest in potential uses such as basketball courts, golf simulators, and strength and conditioning uses. Additionally, Massimino said that he is working on a master plan for the entire property that will be presented publicly.

The Permitting Process

While the applicant said that a tenant wants to move into the building next month, that plan may not be feasible due to the timeline of the permitting process. Town Building Inspector Ed Smith said in a Sept. 11 conversation with the Harbor News that getting a tenant in place in October is unlikely.

“Existing buildings, especially large buildings such as this one, that are projected to become mixed use buildings can be difficult to design. Reviews of the submitted drawings for code compliance are a specialty that is usually performed by architects and engineers that have years of experience in this area,” Smith said. “To date, I have not received any information for review. I would expect that this phase of the project alone could take a considerable amount of time.”

Smith said that getting permits for mixed use developments can be tricky, as there are restrictions on what kind of uses can be placed next to other uses.

While the application the PZC approved is for indoor recreational use, there has been speculation that the developer would ask down the road for a special exception that would allow a brewery and restaurant.

Smith reiterated that without seeing more concrete information on what’s planned for the building where the recreation center is intended to go, it’s hard for him to judge how long the permitting process will take.

“It may be a year or it may not be that bad,” Smith said.

Smith said that while specific tenants don’t need to be in place, a type of use must be specified for the different areas of the building.

“It’s not easy, potentially. I’m hoping for the best,” said Smith.

The first step in the permitting process is for the developer to get drawings from a registered professional. Once the drawings and specific plans have been obtained, the applicant will present them to building department and fire department for review. If the plans are approved, then the construction may start.

Additionally, Smith said that since the building would be undergoing a change of use, that means that the building must then meet different code requirements.

“Because this project appears to also involve a Change of Occupancy from an F-Factory use to some form of A-Assembly or Mixed use, the building must be brought up to the requirements of the current building code, which is the 2018 Connecticut State Building Code. I and the fire marshal would need to be provided a complete set of sealed drawings and specifications that fully describe the intended use of all the building area for review before a permit could be issued,” Smith said.

A Bumpy Road

Prior to its vote to approve the special exception, the PZC held lengthy discussions over items in the Connecticut River Area Health District (CRAHD) report on the application, which caused PZC member Gary Bousquet to remark “This is exactly what every single person in Clinton has been talking about with Planning and Zoning. We make the simple incredibly, insanely, difficult.”

One hour prior to the start of the regular PZC meeting, the commission held a special continuation of a public hearing started last month and at which speakers were allowed to speak only on the required report from CRAHD, which had not yet been delivered to the commission at the time of the public hearing last month.

The PZC was especially interested in what the CRAHD report had to say about the sanitary system on the property. Massimino said that with town assistance, the developer had done numerous tests on the property regarding the soils and wastewater disposal systems.

The CRAHD report delivered to the commission reviewed and approved the 40,480 square foot portion of the property where a tenant wants to put in indoor turf.

Consultant Planner John Guszkowski said in an email, “CRAHD determined the necessary size of the septic system to accommodate the projected flows from an indoor soccer space of 40,480 square feet, and further determined that the property at 1 John Street had demonstrated that their proposed septic area was large enough to accommodate those flows. The applicant still needs to provide final design plans for the septic system before they can get final approval for this facility. They’ll also need building permits.”

As for the remaining space that the special exception applies to, the developer will need further CRAHD approvals. “In order to activate any of that space beyond the initial 40,480, the applicant will have to return to CRAHD with modified septic plans (and to the building official with revised building plans),” said Guszkowski.

The public hearing was lightly attended, with only a handful of speakers.

“This is the beginning of a long-term development in town which to state the obvious is what everyone wants,” said Economic Development Commission Chairman John Allen.

John Garcia spoke of the high number of children in the surrounding shoreline area who play soccer and might look for chances to play outside of the school teams.

“We have an opportunity to give all the kids a chance,” Garcia said.

No one in attendance spoke against the application.

The sale of seven different parcels that make up the Unilever property was announced in late July. Since then, there has been speculation around town as to the future of the property.

Massimino has said that he plans to be a regular on the PZC agenda for the foreseeable future as more development on the property takes place.

“I’m sure we’ll be in front of this board many times over the next 24 to 36 months,” Massimino said earlier in 2019.

The Unilever plant had more than 100 years of history in town, but in July 2011, Unilever announced that the company’s Clinton plant would close by the end of 2012. Since then, there have been multiple efforts to bring an indoor recreational complex to the building that until now had not materialized.

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