GROTON — A spirited discussion of potential threats to drinking water and quality of life for residents stemming from a possible future super Wal-Mart store on Gold Star Highway is to be continued Feb. 13, 2007, before the Planning Commission.

A crowd of at least 70 swamped the small Community Room 2 on Jan. 9 at the Town Hall Annex where the Commission intended to conduct its site plan review for a 36+-acre development to be anchored by a 4.2-acre Super Wal-Mart with a 5-acre parking lot.

A town fire marshal who appeared at the scene ordered all spectators who couldn’t find seats at the meeting–perhaps 30 persons–to leave the room because of fire regulations. When it was objected that the Planning Commission session wouldn’t be a public meeting if portions of the public were excluded, the Town Council volunteered its own larger room for the hearing and moved its Committee of the Whole session into Room 2. Prior to the Council’s move, Mayor Harry Watson and Town Manager Mark Oefinger had dropped in to Room 2, apparently to size up the situation.

Consideration of the Wal-Mart project started fairly late in the meeting and lasted until about 11:30 p.m. It is to be continued at the February meeting, rather than the next Planning Commission session Jan. 23, because another major project is scheduled for the second January meeting. The site of the next meeting on Wal-Mart will be announced later.

The meeting featured lengthy presentations by the engineers and the lawyer for Konover Development Corp., developer for the project; comment by town staff that appeared favorable to the project; vigorous questioning by Planning Commission members; and lively commentary by a broad spectrum of citizens. The citizens included a GOSA director, a marine scientist, union representatives and many residents near the proposed project off Gold Star Highway (Route 184) and Antonino Road. Five neighboring residents registered as intervenors in the Planning Commission site plan approval process. The residents are being represented by Marjorie Shansky, a New Haven lawyer specializing in land use and real estate. GOSA already had registered independently as an intervenor.

The drinking water issue arises because of the proposed Wal-Mart’s location. The development tract comes as close as 500 feet to the Hempstead Brook feeder of the Groton Utilities Poquonnock reservoir and within 1,000 feet of the reservoir itself. It thus lies within in Groton’s Water Resource Protection District.

The project, which was submitted last March by Konover without any mention of Wal-Mart’s participation, won approval of the Town’s Inland Wetlands Agency April 26, 2006. The IWA was informally aware that Wal-Mart was behind the application. The original application envisioned resubdividing four land parcels comprising 37.77 acres into five parcels, four of which would have frontage on Route 184 and one that would front on Antonino Road. By the time the application reached the Planning Commission, it had morphed. The project currently envisions compressing the four parcels into two comprising 36.73 acres. Konover said that because the venture now involves compression rather than expansion of the number of parcels, it is not a subdivision or resubdivision.

Subdivisions and resubdivisions are governed by subdivision regulations and require a full and formal public hearing, while non-subdivisions are treated as “site plans” that need Planning Commission approval but fall outside the subdivision regulations and require no formal public hearing.

Konover’s representatives painted a picture of an environmentally sensitive development that would manage stormwater runoff from the roof and impervious surfaces with underground settlement tanks regulating the flow of stormwater into various vegetated areas. Storm water quality is to be sampled and monitored, said Guy A. Hesketh, of the East Granby engineering firm of F.A. Hesketh & Associates. Activities such as auto repair and film processing won’t be allowed. Konover has said it is working with Groton Utilities and has responded to all questions posed by the utility. Mr. Hesketh did mention Hempstead Brook in his presentation but did not say it runs into the reservoir.

Scott Hesketh, of the same firm, said its traffic study showed the Wal-Mart would generate an extra 970 trips during the peak weekday hour and an extra 1,350 trips at the peak weekend hour. He said Gold Star Highway would have to be widened near the driveway leading to the Wal-Mart.

Residents of nearby roads objected that the resulting traffic would pose dangers to pedestrians, particularly children, and make it difficult to move cars out of driveways. One spoke of the project’s creating a “Suicide Six one mile long” on his road. All-hours truck traffic, 42-foot lights, flooding, loss of land to elevated water levels, damage to wells by blasting, and noise were other problems cited by residents.

“Will it be daylight all night?” asked a resident of Spyglass Circle.

Joan Smith, a GOSA director, urged the Planning Commission to hire outside experts, at the expense of the developer, to evaluate the project. She specifically suggested a hydrologist and a specialist in public drinking water supplies. Ms. Smith noted that Groton Utilities has conflicting tasks in selling electricity and protecting drinking water. The utility needs large consumers like Wal-Mart [estimated 2-3 megawatts] to cope with rising costs while keeping its energy prices low. She noted that clean and safe drinking water doesn’t automatically trump low electricity rates when the two come into conflict. Thus, she said, GU couldn’t be counted on for an objective public assessment of the dangers posed to drinking water.

James N. Kremer, Ph.D., professor of Marine Sciences at the University of Connecticut, urged the Planning Commission not to take chances with the water supply. He said in a statement submitted to the commission that the development will hurt water quality, and he questioned the suitability of the site, “even if it is legally permissible.” He said that monitoring of storm water does not adequately predict degradation; health regulations don’t ensure environmental quality; and so-called Best Management Practices for managing storm water have serious limitations.

Sidney Van Zandt, another GOSA director, said in a written statement that a broken bag of pesticide washed down a drain could harm the town’s water supply.

Members of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters protested that Konover hires subcontractors who “misclassify” employees in order to save money, according to a report in The Day.

Ray Munn, a Planning Commission member, asked for a referral of the project to the town’s Conservation Commission. He spoke about the need to consider the general well- being of the community and asked whether Wal-Mart could be expanded in its current nearby location, rather than abandoning it and building a new facility.

Michael J. Murphy, director of the Office of Planning and Development, objected that the current site wouldn’t be abandoned and said that a new tenant would be found. He did not deal with what appeared to be the main thrust of Mr. Munn’s question–whether Wal-Mart shouldn’t improve its current site, rather than moving. Mr. Murphy said the developer is “going well beyond requirements” in the current project.

Questions by other Planning Commission members dealt with hours of store operation and truck delivery times, possible blasting during construction, traffic and the combining of land parcels.

Groton Utilities has kept a low public profile during discussions of the Super Wal-Mart and had no apparent presence at the Planning Commission meeting Jan. 9. However, Karl Acimovic, a GU engineer, did say in a March 24, 2006 memo to the Inland Wetlands Agency: “Groton Utilities has already seen a steady decline in water quality from this westerly section of the watershed (due to continued commercial and housing buildup) which, unlike northerly areas, comes directly into the terminal reservoir system without any significant detention or renovation of pollutants.”