Norwich development proposal, victim of the times, is officially dead

Norwich - Citing the poor economy, a New York development group has withdrawn a controversial plan for a $200 million luxury condominium and golf course development on more than 400 acres of former farmland in Occum.

Byron Brook Country Club LLC and sister firm M&A Holdings LLC had planned to build 658 luxury housing units, a nine-hole pitch-and-putt golf course and wooded nature trails on the former Tarryk and Doolittle farms as well as a related commercial retail park along Route 97 in Occum.

The two projects received initial approvals in 2006, and the country club plan was scaled back and modified in 2009.

The projects would have encompassed about 400 acres in one of the last major tracts of undeveloped land in the city. The properties front Canterbury Turnpike, Lawler Lane, School Avenue and some land off Scotland Road.

Withdrawing the site plans means all past plan approvals will be negated, said Peter Davis, city director of planning and development. The project land comprises a mixture of zoning classifications, including planned commercial and multifamily residential.

In a June 7 letter to Davis, Byron Brook principal Robert Arnone said it was "with deep regret" that the company asked city planning officials to withdraw the plans "due to the current economic environment." Arnone asked the city to release the nearly $1.5 million in combined performance bond money the city is holding for the project.

The Commission on the City Plan will vote on the withdrawals at its meeting Tuesday. Attorney Glenn Carberry, representing Byron Brook, said owners Arnone and partner Joseph Manzi would not have further comment until after the planning commission meeting.

In the letter, the two thanked city officials for working with them on the project over the past several years, including on controversial modifications in 2009 that reduced the scope of the golf course from a professional level to the nine-hole course and removed a luxury clubhouse while keeping the luxury condos and apartments.

One aborted plan would have included a large active recreation area with ballfields that would have been turned over to the city.

Davis said the developers have put the property on the market. The withdrawal is "disappointing" because of all the time and effort the developers and city officials put into the project, he said. But he acknowledged that some residents and officials who objected to the large-scale project would welcome the news.

"They were obviously victims of two things: the golf-course industry going south several years ago and the economic downturn," Davis said. "We had spent some time with them over the past 18 months or so trying to reprogram the project to see if they could make something work. With the collapse of the housing industry, there really isn't anything that works there."

The M&A Holdings commercial end of the project called for building a new road, Bromley Lane, from Route 97 to access commercially zoned land. That project entailed successful negotiations with Harry Austin, owner of Austin's Garage on Route 97 that gave Austin an expanded lot that he, too, could market for development.

But like Byron Brook, Austin has stopped marketing the property and is "on hold" with the land. He said Tuesday he was unaware of, but not surprised at, the withdrawal. He said he was disappointed after several years of "intense hard work" on the project.

"The economy is certainly showing its toll," Austin said.

Mayor Peter Nystrom, however, said he felt the attractiveness of the Byron Brook project "died" when the developers canceled the luxury golf course and resort clubhouse while keeping the dense housing component in the rural Occum area. Nystrom called the project too large for the area and said the impact would have been greater than the tax benefit.

Nystrom, by charter the city's economic development point person, said he now hopes to concentrate on the commercial end of the property, along Route 97 in Occum, rather than on the hilly farm property.

Nystrom has had discussions with another interested developer hoping to propose a project on Route 97 and is interested in talking with state Department of Transportation officials about an idea to move the highway maintenance facility currently located in a prime development spot off Exit 83 on Interstate 395.

"It's a clean slate, that's the key," Nystrom said of the available Occum commercial land.

c.bessette@theday.com

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