Norwich planning commission approves Burger King abutting historic burial ground

Norwich — The planning commission Tuesday approved a controversial plan for a Burger King restaurant with a drive-thru on Town Street, the rear property line abutting the historic Colonial Era burial ground.

While planning commission members said they were sympathetic with concerns by the many opponents who attended two public hearing rounds to voice objections to the project so close to the historic burying ground, the commission voted 4-1 in favor of the project. The approval attached 14 conditions onto the project, beginning with a required archaeological study prior to construction.

Commission member Kathy Warzecha, the former Norwich city planner, voted against the project and against an initial motion to allow the buffer zone between the development and the burial ground to range from 20 to 40 feet, a reduction from the 50-foot required in regulations.

Property owner Amaral Revite Corp. has proposed tearing down three 1920s houses at 61, 63 and 65 Town St. and re-grading the elevated properties to street level to build a Burger King with a 24-hour drive-thru lane. In the buffer area, the elevated ground will be retained, providing a natural screening from the restaurant, noise from the drive-thru and lights from the parking lot, drive-thru and headlights.

Commission member P. Michael Lahan said the commission could not control whether it wanted Burger King on the site, because the land is zoned for commercial development. The public hearing only pertained to the proposed drive-thru, which required a special permit.

Lahan said he sympathized with concerns expressed by Warzecha, who earlier in Tuesday’s meeting had tried to make a motion against the project that failed without a second. But Lahan said he walked the cemetery Tuesday prior to the meeting and said commercial development is visible at various points, including the medical plaza, two banks, the Stop & Shop across the street and vehicles in the parking lots. Lahan said the proposed project would have much more screening than those developments.

“Unfortunately, I think we’re faced with the fact that this property is in a commercial zone,” Lahan said. “It’s commercial on both sides. It’s commercial across the street, and the only thing that prevents it from being so on the back side is the cemetery. And I don’t think there’s anybody in this room who would disagree that the cemetery is a very important historical asset.”

Lahan said only an archaeological study can determine whether there are burials on the property, which is across an 1870 stone wall property border. Commission member Les King added that the Burger King developer “has gone above and beyond” the requirements in the regulations in designing the building to be compatible with the nearby Norwichtown Historic District and included a physical buffer between the project and the burial ground.

After the vote, Norwich Historical Society President William Champagne said the group would “keep our options open” in considering whether to appeal the commission’s decision.

“We’d like to keep working with the developer if possible,” Champagne said.

Jeff Benevides, vice president of operations and project manager for Amaral Revite Corp. said work on the project likely won’t begin until early spring and would start with the archaeological study.

Project attorney William Sweeney said he was pleased to hear King’s comment acknowledging that the developer has designed the project to fit into the neighboring historic district, even though the accommodations were not required.

“From our perspective, we did a lot of things we weren’t required to do,” Sweeney said. “We changed the design of the building. From the start, we were aware of the burying ground.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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