Orange resident says ‘lipstick’ can’t dress up plan for ‘Stew Leonard’ property

The 41-acre property at 161 Marsh Hill Road in Orange.

The 41-acre property at 161 Marsh Hill Road in Orange.

Town resident George Finley is concerned that a distribution center heavy with truck traffic proposed for the “Stew Leonard” property just off Interstate 95 isn’t suited as a “gateway” to Orange and, if approved, would leave potential visitors with a wrong impression of the town.

Citing the real estate value rule of “Location, location, location,” Finley said putting something in the wrong location can affect “welfare, public perception, negative image and production.” He asked Town Planning and Zoning Commission members to heavily consider whether the site is the correct location for a “truck terminal.”

“No matter how much lipstick we put on Ugly Betty, it’s still a truck terminal,” he told the TPZC at a recent public hearing.

Also speaking at the hearing was the owner of a Marsh Hill Road hotel who was worried about traffic, and a town resident who really wants to know the name of the business that would operate there.

Finley said he decided to do his own comparison of Orange to St. Louis because it’s considered the gateway to the Midwest. He rattled off a list of tourist-type businesses off the highway — parks, zoos, theaters.

“None of them is called the truck terminal,” Finley said. He said they have distribution centers with big trucks in St. Louis, but they are hidden.

The 41 acres at 161 Marsh Hill Road, owned by supermarket mogul Stew Leonard, is zoned for light industrial use. Scannell Properties LLC holds a contract to purchase the property from Leonard, who for years fought to open a store in Orange, but no longer wanted to spend the money to fight residents’ resistance in court.

The TPZC continued the hearing, likely until its Nov. 20 meeting, because the Inland Wetlands and Water Courses Commission has yet to vote on the application. They will likely vote at Tuesday’s meeting.

The developer’s attorney, John Knuff, as well as an engineer and other specialists, have talked for hours about the plan, answered detailed questions from members of both commissions and emphasized how they’ve altered the plans numerous times to make city officials happy.

Knuff said the “gateway” factor shouldn’t be of concern because the developer plans to create berms, plant 309 trees, including an outside row of evergreens to hide the sight, ground cover, bushes and decorative fencing.

One sticking point with residents has been mystery surrounding the use — rumors of a truck stop such as Pilot became rampant — but more was revealed at last week’s hearing.

Although residents got a clearer picture of the use as a business-to-business distribution center, there is a new resident movement afoot to get the name of the company, yet the developer remains tight-lipped.

One resident who spoke at the late-night hearing said she thinks many residents are concerned about the project and want the name of the company. The resident said she asked First Selectman Jim Zeoli, but even he didn’t know.

“It just seems kind of strange,” she said.

Phil Craft, owner of a nearby hotel on Marsh Hill Road, said he’s “pro-business” but has concerns about the amount of traffic already for those exiting the hotel through Outback restaurant. The hotel is located behind the restaurant. He said he questioned the reported low traffic study numbers.

“I’m concerned about the safety of my guests,” Craft said. “It’s a pretty scary intersection.”

The project is a business-to-business distribution facility for products of varying kinds and a nationally known company that is located in a nearby town and looking to relocate in Orange.

Knuff said the business would operate 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and would be closed on weekends. It will have 173 employees.

Knuff said much of the land will be undeveloped to reduce impact on wetlands, and a conservation easement will be put into place.

Knuff said the property as it is now — open farmland — generates about $166,000 in taxes to the town, but with the project built that number would be about $688,000.

Knuff thanked Finley for comparing provisions in the proposal to those of United Illuminating Co. headquarters on Marsh Hill Road.

The application before the TPZC by Stew Leonards Orange LLC involves a permit for a temporary special use earth materials removal and filling for the proposed construction of the facility.

An application also was submitted for sediment control measures.

The property price is not listed for the public to see, but at one point Leonard was seeking $14.5 million. He paid $2.2 million for the land in 1996.

The application before the TPZC states site work is expected to result in approximately 166,300 cubic yards of cut and 103,300 cubic yards of fill.