MONROE, CT — An illegal rock crushing operation damaged wetlands and left a massive hole on 72 acres of industrial land in the Pepper Street Business Park. Now, after a year of meetings and a marathon of hearings in which environmental experts clashed over the best way to restore the wetlands and make the site viable for development again, the new owners are right back where they started.
The Inland Wetlands Commission will soon vote on a motion to deny the application for 64 Cambridge and 4 Independence drives.
The owners also have a plan before the Planning and Zoning Commission, but Town Planner Rick Schultz says state statutes require the commission to deny it without a wetlands approval.
“How often does someone walk into a town and offer to solve a problem caused by others?” said Arnold Karp, managing partner of the two LLCs that own the properties.
Astro Land Holdings LLC and Spacely Land Holdings LLC purchased the properties in May of 2019.
Karp’s proposal was to bring in 980,000 cubic yards of material to fill in the huge hole, rehydrate and restore damaged wetlands, and to construct a small office building.
Among the reasons the Inland Wetlands Commission will vote on a motion to deny the proposal is that their own expert, Russell Dirienzo, a licensed environmental professional, said the plan to restore the damaged wetlands had only a small chance of succeeding.
Other seasons given by commissioners are that the application is incomplete, that there should have been separate applications for remediation of the wetlands and development, and that a plan to pump water from a bedrock well to rehydrate wetlands “lacked sufficient detail.”
There is a belief among some commissioners that the massive filling operation, which would take at least 10 years, is not necessary, so the amount of fill could be reduced.
Karp pointed out how Dirienzo also said he did not believe the proposal would harm the wetlands. Karp said his experts were optimistic the plan would work, so he reasoned, if it posed no threat to the wetlands, why not try it?
“We were in front of them for six months,” Karp said. “It would have been nice to know they didn’t like that concept of rehydrating the wetlands. If we put water into the vernal pool and it didn’t work, in two years they could have told us, ‘it’s not working you have to do something else.'”
The denial will be without prejudice, meaning the owners can come back with a new application.
“By delaying us from doing anything, all it does it make a problem go from bad to worse,” Karp said.
If the plan was approved, Paul Stone, chief financial officer of the LLCs, said they could have been rehydrating the wetlands this spring, but now the best they can hope for is the spring or summer of 2022.
‘Happy’ over denial
Not everyone is unhappy over the news of the impending denial.
Peter Metropoulos, a neighboring property owner who has expressed concerns over environmental and groundwater impacts to his land, totaling over 100 acres, had filed for intervenor status, hiring his own experts to scrutinize the proposal.
Karp and his experts accused Metropoulos of trying to delay the process.
“I’m happy that the application was denied last night, as I believe this application was simply an attempt by the applicant to obtain a backdoor permit for the operation of a commercial recycling/landfill facility in the town of Monroe,” Metropoulos said the day after the Jan. 12 wetlands hearing.
“We all know that the site was previously an over-excavated unpermitted quarry that officially closed as of January 2, 2019,” he said.
After purchasing the property in May of 2019, Metropoulos alleged that Karp immediately reopened the site as an unpermitted quarry, recycling center and landfill without any town input.
“He continued with the dynamiting of granite deposits, deepening and expanding the large craters to simply excavate virgin, natural material for sale,” Metropoulos said. “Mr. Karp also advertised the sale of this native material and posted fee schedules for the import of unprocessed construction demolition debris.”
Metropoulos sent The Sun the contractor price sheet from Rockhead LLC, Karp’s company, for the “Monroe Quarry – 64 Cambridge Drive.”
“We made the site safe,” Karp said, adding they “blasted a little” to make sure unsafe edges of ledge and rock would fall in.
While Karp says he needs to bring in fill to remediate the land, Metropoulos accuses him of bringing in a massive amount of construction debris, “of mostly unknown origin,” to the site for the purpose of collecting lucrative dumping fees.
“He claimed that all material imported was ‘certified clean fill,’ which is nothing more than a pleasant word to describe ‘construction solid waste,'” Metropoulos said. “This all occurred on top of a sensitive GAA watershed in an effort to fill in penetrations into the water table.”
He cited how demolition debris from Stratford High School was brought to the property, claiming that “no post demolition testing of asbestos or for any other materials occurred.”
“Curiously, per Stratford town regulations, all construction debris should have been sent directly to a licensed recycling facility for processing by a trucker who is also licensed to transport such construction debris,” Metropoulos said. “This did not occur.”
During the hearings, Kevin Solli of Solli Engineering, the engineer for the applicant, strongly denied it would be a recycling facility. Though he did say some fill material would need to be processed before it is suitable to go into the hole.
No objections from DEEP
Environmental experts for the applicant drilled borings to test soil and water samples on the property and found no contamination.
Throughout the hearings, Metropoulos’s attorney, Joel Z. Green questioned the fill already brought onto the site and whether the level of testing on the property was adequate.
But Dirienzo said that was a Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection issue, not a Monroe Inland Wetlands Commission issue.
Stone said the DEEP inspected the property and found no cause for concern.
“He does not believe the licensed environmental professional who says we tested and it’s not a problem,” Karp said of Metropoulos. “Why let science get in the way of a good story? He’s going against all the experts, who are licensed, because they were hired by us.”
Karp said they gave all the manifests to the town showing where the fill came from.
During the hearings, Green shared Google Earth photos showing massive areas of excavation on the property that have already been filled in. He wanted more testing of samples there.
Karp said the intervenor can make copies of tickets with information on every truckload of fill that was brought in, but Metropoulos said Karp did not respond to his emails to make arrangements for that.
“All the debris trucked in was covered over with soil to hide evidence and to make future testing difficult,” Metropoulos said.
“We’re not hiding evidence,” Karp said. “We had it tested before I purchased it. It all came back clean. Even the town’s independent expert said that.”
“He wanted to buy the property when we got it in 2019,” Stone said of Metropoulos. “This is the reason [for his opposition to our plan]. If he is concerned over the quality of the water, he should allow us to do what we want to do.”
Metropoulos said the previous owner, John Kimball, had offered the property to him, but he declined because of the asking price and the fact it was on top of a GAA water table, among other reasons.
He said he bought land at 36 Timothy Hill Road instead, because of its access to the water, power and gas lines at the end of Independence Drive. “This connection will feed my 135 acres,” Metropoulos said.
Now it’s a problem?
Activity on the Cambridge and Independence drive properties dates back to 2006, but Karp said the town only issued a potential notice of violation 12 years in.
“It’s amazing, for 15 years no one knew how bad the property was — until we showed up,” he said. “Suddenly the town woke up. For 15 years, they looked the other way.”
Town Planner Rick Schultz referred all questions of the town to Attorney Barbara Schellenberg, who did not return two phone calls for comment.
During the hearings, Karp expressed frustration over so much of the focus being placed on the history of the property and comparisons to a scandal in Fairfield, in which officials accepted bribes to allow toxic dumping onto a town-owned property there.
“Why would I go ruin a property I paid for?” Karp asked.
Karp said he was president of the Stamford Museum & Nature Center and was part of the Mill River Collaborative, a public-private partnership in Stamford. “We took a brownfield and made it into a park,” he said.
Of Dirienzo’s professional opinion that the rehydration plan would have a 30 percent chance of success, Karp said, “30 percent is better than zero, but if I don’t try, it won’t happen.”
Several town commissioners expressed their opinions that 10 years was too long a time frame to truck in fill, but the applicant’s experts said it would take at least that long to properly source and vet all that material.
“Where do they think I’m going to find all this fill?” he asked. “They kept saying they were uncomfortable with two applications, not why. I have no clear direction of why they turned this down.”
In more than three decades Karp said he has built a track record of taking challenging properties and making them work, adding he must have already spent about a quarter-of-a-million dollars on the Monroe properties.
Karp said he will come back with a new plan adding, “I’m here for the long haul.”