By Bob McGarry, Haddam First Selectman
(September 29, 2022)—The property located at the corner of Saybrook Road and Depot Road, which most of us know as the Rossi property, has been an important economic engine for Haddam for well over 100 years. It housed the Cutaway Harrow Company from 1892 – circa 1950. Rossi Lumber Company purchased the property and employed 100 people there until they relocated in 1994. Since then, various commercial tenants, including the town, have leased space in the buildings but the property has largely been dormant and underutilized.
Why are we considering buying it? With a little over 4 ½ acres, the Rossi property is the largest private parcel in Higganum Center. Given its location, it’s one of the most visible parcels. To a casual observer, including one thinking of locating a business in Higganum Center, the property appears to be vacant and neglected, even though it’s not. It’s a drag on our efforts to revitalize the center. Additionally, the property is legally a “non-conforming use.” That allows the property owner to have businesses or activities there that our zoning laws prohibit. Non-conforming use rights convey to whoever buys the property, unless the existing owner surrenders them.
There are other benefits to the property. It’s flat and fully developable with frontage on two roads. There are no wetlands on the piece and, contrary to what many believe, it’s not in a flood plain. It provides the only safe way to walk from the center to Higganum Cove; the bridge on Depot Road is too narrow for both vehicles and pedestrians. It gives us a less expensive and easier route to connect to the future community septic leach fields at HES than running the main in Saybrook Road. It’s an income-producing property from the rent the town and other tenants pay.
There was strong public support for developing the property during the writing of our Plan of Conservation and Development in 2017 and the Higganum Center charrettes held in 2019. A major hurdle to its development is pollution; the site is a Brownfield. (More on this follows.) Successful development of Brownfields is rare without government involvement.
What are the concerns with buying it? In a word, pollution. Like most of Higganum Center, it’s built on industrial fill, which contains pollutants. Industrial use there since has added more pollutants. However, that pollution has been investigated and well documented. Eight environmental consulting companies, including one we hired as part of our due diligence for the potential purchase, have conducted 32 studies on the property. The Rossi property is actually two properties – 300 and 305 Saybrook Road. 300 Saybrook Road is the larger property, 4.3 acres, but the least polluted. The environmental concerns there are the site-wide industrial fill mentioned earlier and isolated areas with heavy metal or PCB contamination. The fill can be remediated by capping it, such as with buildings, pavement or clean fill. Soil containing heavy metals or PCB needs to be excavated and removed. 305 Saybrook Road, 0.3 acres. is the piece at the corner of Saybrook and Depot Roads. Because of the nature of the contaminants there, we’ll lease it ($1/year) from the Rossi Lumber Company (ROLUMCO) instead of buying it. ROLUMCO will continue to be responsible for that contamination. As we did for the Scovil Hoe/DOT property in the center, we’re enrolling in the Brownfield Remediation and Revitalization Program (BRRP). That eliminates our liability for any off-site migration of contaminants from the property. We’ve also applied for a $1.5 million grant from the state for remediation of the site. (We received a similar grant for the Scovil property).
What is the vision for the property? While it would be subject to a public offering, we already have a local developer who wants to purchase the 2+ acres fronting on Saybrook Road for retail and office space. With some clean-up and enhancements to the rest of the buildings and grounds, we’d continue the existing light industrial use on the remainder property.
What happens next? We’re in the final phases of negotiations with ROLUMCO. Assuming those continue to go well, the results will be presented to the Board of Selectmen at the October 11, 2022 meeting, the Board of Finance at the October 19th meeting and the Planning and Zoning Commission at the October 20th meeting. All of these meetings are open to the public. If the boards and P&Z recommend the purchase, we’ll hold a Public Hearing to discuss it on November 2nd and vote on it at a Town Meeting on November 9th.
The Rossi property has sat unchanged for more than 20 years. It’s an impediment to revitalizing Higganum Center. It’s unlikely that will change in the foreseeable future, unless we act. It’s a big project for a small town to undertake. But, with the state’s assistance, we can make a significant and highly visible improvement in Higganum Center.