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Proposed Waterford airport property development up in the air

Waterford — The future of Waterford’s long-vacant airport property hangs in the balance.

Located at 140 Waterford Parkway South and vacant for almost four decades, the property is once again a target for development, this time by Fabcon Precast, a concrete manufacturer based in Minnesota.

On Nov. 23 the Planning and Zoning Commission discussed Fabcon's application for a special permit and site plan approval and could make a decision at its next meeting on Dec. 14. Planning Department staff will prepare a presentation for the commission before that meeting.

While commission members have said they want Fabcon to be able to install a concrete plant on the property, they have reservations about increased traffic and how the plant would fit with the surrounding area, among other issues.

In multiple public hearings preceding last week’s meeting, members of the nearby Beechwood Estates Homeowners Association, a senior community of 40 homes at 168 Parkway South, voiced their opposition to the proposed development. A letter from Beechwood Board of Directors President Victor Ferry outlined the residents’ misgivings, including truck traffic passing close to residences late into the night, worsening the already poor condition of Parkway South and threatening pedestrians.

“Beechwood Estates residents have an aggregate investment valued at approximately $12,000,000 for homes, sans outlying property, and approval of the Fabcon proposal is likely to negatively impact property values and quality of life issues,” Ferry wrote in the letter. “Surely, with all factors considered, Waterford can do better in attracting a use for the former airport property than the current proposal.”

The commission discussed the concerns at length at last week’s meeting and then tabled a decision on the application. The town’s Economic Development Commission is in favor of Fabcon’s proposal and hopes for a “long business relationship” between the town and the company.

Fabcon’s plans for future expansion at the property presented a sticking point for Planning and Zoning commissioners.

They discussed attaching a condition to any approval in which Fabcon has to come back to the commission with any expansion plan before proceeding, though Commissioner Gregory Massad expressed a concern about this.

“What happens if we get ourselves into the situation where this is approved but in two years or three years the expansion is absolutely necessary for their operations, but it’s not approved?” he asked. “I really wish that everything was put on the table now so that we would know what we’re approving.”

“I really want to approve this project, but there’s too much uncertainty,” Massad said at one point.

Commission member Karen Barnett looked for compromises during the meeting, asking if the town has a plan in place to improve the condition of Waterford Parkway South, which it currently does not. She asked, too, if there’s a possibility that Beechwood Estates residents could use about 40 acres of land Fabcon is not using as a walking area, thereby mitigating the concern for pedestrians from the homeowners association. The owners of abutting properties would have to work out such an arrangement privately, Town Planner Abby Piersall said.

Barnett also worried about how a concrete plant would affect the town’s water utilities. Waterford is part of a regional sewage agreement with New London and East Lyme.

“I know they said when they do their expansion that they won’t add any more water consumption, but I find that kind of hard to believe,” Barnett said. “With the drought conditions from this summer, I think we really need to look at, ‘Do we want a water-intensive industry using our resources?’”

Piersall said New London has not raised any issue about the ability to use water.

Massad was the most critical of Fabcon, saying he did not think the company did a sufficient job of showing what the development would look like from Interstate 95.

“I think we’ve already started to define the character of the neighborhood in these Frontage Roads, and I don’t find that this particular type of thing will be in harmony with the character of these zones,” Massad said.

Commissioner Tim Bleasdale said he doesn’t have a concern that would make him vote against the plan. Bleasdale and Massad have been at odds regarding development in the past. Massad made a similar argument against redeveloping the abandoned Cohanzie School into a multifamily housing development last year. Bleasdale was the only commissioner in favor of the plan to redevelop Cohanzie.

At 188 acres, the airport property value is currently about $4.3 million, according to the town tax assessor’s office. Fabcon did not disclose the details of its deal to purchase the property from owner Mathon Fund I LLC, except to say it’s contingent on the town approving the development.

In September, Fabcon CFO Mark Pederson addressed how the company scoped out the Waterford property for development.

 “We’re interested in opening a new plant somewhere in the New England market,” Pederson said. “When you start looking around at sites that are big enough to accommodate our needs, it was hard to find an appropriate site. The airport site happened to fit.”

Since it opened its first plant in 1971, Fabcon has steadily expanded its operations. The company now has plants in Minnesota, Ohio, Kansas and Pennsylvania.

Some in Waterford are unaware the town was home to an airport from 1945 to 1987. Its three runways were destroyed decades ago. Now, the property is mostly a wooded area with overgrown vegetation and some litter. It’s been the subject of a number of unsuccessful development ideas since 1987.

s.spinella@theday.com

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