A continued hearing over Stop & Shop's plan to open a gas station on a 1.9-acre property at 528 Monroe Turnpike often became emotional amid four hours of testimony and debate inside the Council Chambers of Monroe Town Hall last week.
Attorney Stephen Studer contends that no arguments against his client's application have anything to do with what the Inland Wetlands Commission is supposed to consider in a plan, that he calls, "state of the art."
Opponents argue that disturbing contaminated soil that once held leaky oil tanks and building a gas station in close proximity to a public watershed could prove disastrous.
At one point, Leon Ambrosey, who owns a service garage on Route 111, flew out of his seat to angrily protest Studer's questioning of fellow town resident Ronald Bunovsky's credentials during the public portion of the hearing.
Both sides' heels are firmly dug in for a fight that will be decided by the Inland Wetlands Commission when it deliberates and votes on the application during a special meeting scheduled for July 11.
At the continued hearing on June 13, Studer highlighted improvements to Monroe Gas LLC's drainage system, as well as new information gathered since March. Among the information, he said several neighbors' wells were tested and that no contamination was found in their drinking water.
"Our application will not have a significant adverse impact on the natural resources," Studer said.
The fuel tanks for the five-bay gas station with a kiosk would be below the ground water level. Experts with Langan Associates told the commission that the area would be "de-watered" with a sump pump to lower the water table until the tanks are installed.
A vernal pool is nearby, but no reptiles, amphibians or birds were found within the site of disturbance, according to a scientist hired by the applicant. A two-foot-high block wall on the outside of the basin would keep amphibians from getting in. Nearby wetlands would be heavily vegetated.
Land Tech Consultants, environmental scientists and engineers hired by the commission, performed its own evaluation and shared recommendations with Monroe Gas.
Christopher Allan, senior associate with Land Tech, recommends that the system be monitored for three years, if approved, and that an invasive species plan be submitted by the applicant.
Drip, Drip ...
Commissioner Lois Spence noted that no matter how much she jiggles the nozzle in her car's gas tank while at the pump, one or two drops fall onto the pavement when she puts it back. She estimates that the 500-600 vehicles the applicant believes would come to the gas station per day would leave a quarter to a half-a-cup of drips over the period.
Allan said, "I think most of it would be removed before it goes into the system."
Steve Trinkaus of Trinkaus Engineering LLC added that on a summer day a drop of oil on the road vaporizes.
Commissioner Cathy Kohut asked Allan what constitutes a catastrophic spill to him.
Allan replied, "No gasoline spill is a good event. One car tank would harm the wetlands," if it passed all of the controls in the drainage system. Allan said that would be about 20 gallons.
But Bill Tabor, an expert hired by the applicant said a tanker truck spilling its entire load would constitute a catastrophe.
"It would be approximately 9,000 gallons and our system is built to handle that," he said, adding that such incidents are rare.
However, Kohut said there were three bad spills over the past month. Tabor said it was an anomaly.
Timothy Onderko, an engineer with Langan Associates, said a valve could close off the entire drainage network, containing over 8,500 gallons to a pavement storage area, before the system handles the rest.
Tim Carr, a licensed Environmental Engineer for GeoDesign Inc., said of the spill protection system, "I've seen them built and operate. They're state-of-the-art — almost. It's a good system."
Town Engineer Scott Schatzlein asked that the applicant pay for the site inspections should the application be approved, rather than his own office doing the work. Studor said his client would pay for a consultant.
Gas Station Supporters
Jim Berliner, who leases space for a travelers' insurance business at 188 Main Street, property owned by the Sippins who also own 528 Monroe Turnpike, spoke in favor of the wetlands application.
"I think it's a great plan for this piece of land because of the scrutiny it brings to bear on this property," Berliner said. "If it instills a little competition, it's good for the people of Monroe."
Elaine Phillips of Shelton said she travels along Route 111 everyday. "I'm very pleased with the level of detail in all of the plans."
While Phillips said there are already existing businesses on Monroe Turnpike that could negatively impact the wetlands, she added that greater controls could be placed on a new application such as the gas station.
Karen Burnaska, a member of the Conservation Commission speaking as a private citizen, said both the Department of Public Health and Aquarion Water Co. say having a gas station in close proximity to drinking water could pose a health risk.
"In my opinion, this is not a type of use that should be within a public drinking water watershed," Burnaska said.
She also submitted a copy of a formal complaint from State Rep. DebraLee Hovey (R-112th) to Attorney Gen. George Jepsen about a flier being distributed at the Stop & Shop on Route 111, telling customers the store wants to bring its popular discount gas program to Monroe and asking them to sign an online petition in support of it. Hovey said it was nothing more than propoganda and failed to mention that wetlands permit and zoning applications must first be approved for it to be built.
Studer dismissed the complaint over the flier, saying that Stop & Shop has a right to free speech like everyone else does.
Gail Bunovsky of the Conservation Commission said the state Drinking Water Division of the Health Department's position is to guide intensive development away from the water supply, watershed and watershed aquafers.
"I know engineers know better than this," she said, looking at the experts seated in the Council Chambers and adding, "These guys know better than this."
Phyllis Kansky of Brookside Drive asked why no wells were tested on her street. "Two are behind the property," she said.
Kansky also took exception to comments made by the town engineer. "I take exception to Mr. Schatzlein's comment on how conservative do we want to be with the de-watering of the facility. It's disheartening to hear those comments. I would hope you would be neutral. To say 'after approval' is inappropriate."
Both Ronald Bunovsky and Harry Witcher, a contractor of 40 years, contend that too much development is being squeezed onto the site.
Bunovsky believes the property, which used to house leaky oil storage tanks and if only a few feet away from Beardsely Brook, should stay dormant.
"The commission is supposed to consider the effect on the entire wetlands," he said. "It doesn't begin and end where you put the shovel in the ground. Most people who support it don't live in town. This is our town and I think it's foolish. There is no fail-safe ... system."
'He just badgered him!'
Bunovsky expressed his belief that the property is not big enough for the proposed drainage system to work.
Attorney Studer cut in and questioned Bunovsky's experience with gasoline. When Leon Ambrosey jumped up from his seat.
"He just badgered him in a town public meeting," Ambrosey called out. "I have a problem with that."
Then when it was Ambrosey's turn to speak, he questioned if the system's capability to handle a tanker spill could work on a rainy day too.
Sheila Sportini, who owns property on Cross Hill Road, said there have been multiple sightings of a Great White Egret, an endangered species who appears to be "hanging out" in the wetlands.
Her husband, Mike Sportini, said of the applicant and its experts, "We are residents of Monroe and as I sit here and look behind me, I see the smug looks and laughs when people get up here to express their concerns. That bothers me."
Bernard Prushko, who owns the Shell station right next door, questioned why Monroe Gas LLC needs 30,000 and 10,000 gallon tanks on the site when none of the existing gas stations on the strip have any tank larger than 10,000 gallons.
He pointed out that Aquarion opposes the application and he asked the commission to reject the wetlands permit application.
Diane Bowerman of Cross Hill Road is concerned over the possibility of arsenic getting into her drinking well. "I would love to utilize Stop & Shop's low cost gas. I just don't want to do it at this cost."
Another resident expressed concerns about traffic accidents on that part of Route 111.
Studer said there was a lot of incorrect information among the oppositions' testimony. He said there was no scaling back on the scope of work performed by the consultant hired by the town in assessing the site. Studer added that it is not a dense use for the property.
As far as spills go, Studer said, "Stop & Shop has a commendable safety record with its gasoline stations and a successful history of redeveloping browns-fields — not just for fueling facilities but stores."
He said the gas station would not be open longer than the supermarket.
James Cowan, a soil scientist with Environmental Services, said the Egret may fly over the area, but that it would not be considered a primary habitat. He also expressed his belief that the application would enhance the wetlands.
Studer said, "The experts retained by the town and our own experts have both come to the same conclusion, that the proposed development for the site does not have an adverse impact on the site, the wetlands and the watercourses."
He said the DPH "refused" to meet with the applicant, is unaware of the improvements to the plan and never visited the site. "The DPH has not participated in this proceeding," Studer said. "It's statements are generic."
He also dismissed statements made by residents at the hearing as conjecture, rather than evidence based on fact.
"We believe we have a safe project that will benefit the community — that will protect the wetlands and watercourses," he said.