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Vacant East Lyme property to become gas station

East Lyme — The owner of a dozen gas stations and convenience stores throughout the state hopes to break ground in less than two months at the site of the Herb Chambers dealership that never came to fruition.

A 90-foot Londregan Commercial Real Estate Group sign that for years has proclaimed the 51 Boston Post Road site as available for sale now classifies it as a done deal. Noble Energy owner Michael Frisbie said he closed on the purchase last month for $1.75 million.

The 3.2-acre site has been vacant for most of the 21st century so far, a visible eyesore from Interstate 95 where it sits immediately off Exit 75. Before it was purchased by the car dealer in 2003, it served as a Foxwoods Resort Casino tourist information center, the short-lived Lulu's Steakhouse and a motel/pancake house.

A lack of public water and sewer access has stymied development, according to officials over the years.

Project documents show the planned Noble gas station will have 16 pumps for regular cars and three for tractor-trailers, along with three charging stations that can accommodate twice as many electric vehicles.

Frisbie said he's planning "for the future of transportation" with a facility that can transition to serve more electric vehicles as demand grows. Part of the reason there aren't already more of the green-technology vehicles on the road is because places to charge them aren't widely available yet, according to the business operator.

"The Noble stations will be able to help support that, so I'm hopeful we'll have more EV cars on the road in the near future, not the long-term future," he said.

The company has gas stations in the Hartford area as well as Danbury and Monroe.

The roughly 8,000-square-foot convenience store with a drive-thru will include a food court serving coffee and breakfast, deli sandwiches and ice cream, according to the application approved by the Zoning Commission in September. Frisbie said he has not secured formal agreements with food service providers yet, but is hopeful Waterbury-based Nardelli's Grinder Shoppe will be running the deli.

The main entrance for regular traffic will be about 240 feet east of the I-95 on-ramp. Another entrance on the eastern border of the property will be for tractor-trailers. Both truck and regular traffic will exit from the main driveway.

He said the facility will get water from an on-site well approved by Ledge Light Health District and the septic system was designed in consultation with experts to meet or exceed best management practices in the industry.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection describes best management practices as minimal standards to ensure water quality.

"Some people call me a developer but I'm not. I'm an owner-operator," Frisbie said. "I hire consultants to teach me this stuff and I try to do what I think are the best management practices to design and build our stores."

Wetlands impact

Frisbie and his lawyer at the September public hearing emphasized the stormwater management plan will be an improvement on the current situation, according to meeting minutes. Attorney Bill Sweeney of Tobin Carberry said the site as it sits now doesn't include catch basins to collect stormwater before it runs down Boston Post Road and ultimately into the Niantic River.

Frisbie said his plan includes a system designed to treat stormwater and retain it on the site before it naturally goes into the ground.

The property is 280 feet from Latimer Brook, according to Wetlands Enforcement Officer and Director of Planning Gary Goeschel. He approved the project's inland wetland application in July, but not without objection from the Inland Wetland Agency.

The agency is tasked with regulating, but not prohibiting, activity within its upland review areas — 300-foot areas surrounding any watercourse or wetland other than the ocean — to ensure such activities will not have adverse impacts on the town's surface water.

Goeschel this week told The Day that only a portion of the proposed stormwater detention basin falls within the regulated area. The rest of the project, including the demolition and construction, is beyond 300 feet from a watercourse or wetland. He said the project is in keeping with the regulations.

Regulations give Goeschel the power to approve an application as long as he determines it doesn't have any more than a minimal impact on wetlands or watercourses. The applicant must publish the approval in the newspaper and anyone who wants to appeal can do so within 15 days of the public notice.

Inland Wetland Agency members argued the approval should have come to them, and they revoked the approval at their July meeting. Goeschel the next month told them the town counsel in a memo advised the agency that it doesn't have the authority to take back a zoning enforcement officer's approval.

"They have staff available to issue these permits, to keep business moving forward, as well as protect the environment," Goeschel said this week. "That's my job, is to do that the best I can within the law."

The project was evaluated by the Zoning Commission to ensure it meets state Coastal Area Management standards, according to zoning official Bill Mulholland.

The coastal boundary essentially encompasses all land within 1,000 feet of the high-tide line or the inland edge of tidal wetlands, according to town documents. In East Lyme, it covers the coastal areas adjoining both Long Island Sound and the Niantic River.

DEEP spokesman Will Healey said the project site plan does not require review by the state. Mandatory reviews within the coastal boundary are triggered only when the project involves a zoning change or flood and erosion control structures like jetties and seawalls.

"Decisions on coastal site plans are made by the municipality and must comply with Coastal Management Act policies, whether or not DEEP reviews and comments on the application, which we did not do in this case," he said.

Save the River

Deb Moshier-Dunn, vice president of the nonprofit environmental group Save the River-Save the Hills, said the group has ongoing concerns about the plan to keep runoff from reaching the Niantic River. She pointed to potential contaminants found at gas stations, including antifreeze, gas and oil.

The group is dedicated to preserving the Niantic River estuary and its watershed, including a decadeslong effort to fend off development of the Oswegatchie Hills, one of the last large stretches of undeveloped waterfront land in the state.

While applauding Frisbie's plan for what she called "state-of-the-art" self-containment systems for the gas and diesel fuel tanks, Moshier-Dunn said the same attention needs to be paid to low-impact measures addressing runoff.

Low-impact development is an alternative way of managing stormwater, according to DEEP. The agency said it involves controlling runoff close to the point of generation and retaining more water on the site where it falls, rather than funneling it into pipes that drain into local waterways.

Moshier-Dunn said her group is planning to meet with Noble Energy to discuss recommendations from Steve Trinkaus, an expert in low-impact development hired by the group to review the plans.

She said the environmental group is asking the owners to "make the development into a showcase, much like the Hole in the Wall Beach parking lot in Niantic."

That beach parking area includes an outdoor stormwater classroom in the form of a 99-space pervious parking lot, grass filter strips, catch basins, a rain garden and dry well to reduce and treat stormwater runoff and conduct real-time monitoring of pollutants, according to DEEP. The program was developed by the town with state and federal funds.

Save the River-Save the Hills "has high expectations for this development to be one that the town and the project owner can be proud of for environmental reasons," according to Moshier-Dunn.

e.regan@theday.com

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