Montville — Work on Oxoboxo Lofts, the planned 72-unit development in town, was suspended this year, but Massachusetts-based developer Dakota Partners is planning to carry on with construction in January 2021.
Dakota Marketing Director Katie Cardillo revealed the new schedule, noting that the pause in construction was due to regulatory steps the company had yet to complete, steps that would secure state tax credits and Department of Housing funding. Work began in the spring of 2019, and the first buildings originally were anticipated to be completed in the summer of 2020. Cardillo said the company expects to have all necessary approvals before construction begins again.
Flood management certification
The nagging issue for the developer has been procuring a flood management certification for the development on Pink Row and at the location of the former Faria Beede Mill Property. But Jeff Caiola, assistant director of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Land and Water Resources Division, said the latest application looks good. Cardillo said the application has been “conditionally approved.”
“I think we have finally come to a resolution on (Dakota’s) application for flood management that they’re working with the Department of Housing on,” Caiola said. “They’ve resolved a lot of our concerns, so now we’re getting ready to issue a public notice and a draft license for the approval of the project.”
Caiola said he’s pushing for the public notice to go out within a couple weeks and for the decision to be made official “shortly.”
For years, Dakota had issues obtaining the certification because of where the proposed development is situated.
“You’re in a floodplain downstream of a dam,” Caiola said. “You’re putting people at risk by putting them in a floodplain. So our agency wants to make sure that the proposal will not pose a harm to human life, won’t damage property. We want to make sure that whatever’s happening not only doesn’t affect the people that are going to be residing there, but doesn’t impact anybody around them.”
In 2016 and 2018, DEEP sent the developer’s bids back to the drawing board, asking for additional information. The third attempt was apparently successful for a variety of reasons. For example, state statute requires that the finished first floor of a housing development has to be at least one foot above the 500-year floodplain because the state determined that housing is a critical activity, meaning residents would be at risk below that level. This latest application accounts for that, Caiola said.
Dakota took on additional team members who understood the complexity of hydraulics and structural forces from flooding, Caiola said, which helped.
“There’s a couple places where the river actually crosses under the mill. There’s areas where the river has, over time, scoured out the banks a bit. It needs some reinforcement; that’s one of their modifications,” Caiola said. “They have implemented additional flood proofing measures, and they’ve demonstrated dry access during the 100-year storm.”
In a 100-year storm situation, people can only get out on one side of the building, “which is OK, as long as everybody has a way out. (Dakota) met the criteria,” Caiola said.
The flood management certification is critical to financing for the project. Dakota co-founder and President Roberto Arista said in March that the majority of funding from the project comes from state tax credits and a DOH loan of $6 million. On Dakota’s website, total development costs are projected to be $32.3 million. Without approval for the certificate and the state money, he said it would be difficult to finish the development.
“I think we’d just end up abandoning the project,” Arista said. “There’s no way you can make the economics work without those funding sources.”
Dakota still has to take care of removing the dam at the back of the former Faria Beede Mill property abutting Route 32 past the Route 163 intersection, a task that, like the development itself, is taking longer than expected. Town Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman William Pieniadz’s P&H construction company is getting rid of the dam.
“The dam is currently in the process of being removed by its owner,” Cardillo said this week.
Pieniadz and Dakota have been trying to remove the dam since 2017.
“Demolition of the dam is a requirement of DEEP, undertaken by this developer on property owned by a third party,” DOH Director of Government Affairs and Communications Aaron Turner wrote in an email. “DOH is aware that demolition has begun. Progress on demolition is one of the DEEP requirements that is threshold to DOH closing, though we understand the actual demolition project need only be completed prior to the owner seeking a certificate of occupancy from Montville.”
“The purpose of the removal project is to remove the public safety hazard, restore a riverine habitat and enhance fish migration,” the permit says.
According to the permit application that was submitted to DEEP on Oct. 31, 2017: “At this time, the Picker Pond dam no longer provides hydraulic power to the mills located immediately east of the dam proper, across Route 32. As a result, the dam no longer serves a purpose.”
Beyond the regulatory red tape and the dam removal, Dakota violated flood management and water quality standards in November 2019 by placing fill in Oxoboxo Brook. Caiola said DEEP was notified by an anonymous tipster, who sent photos of stone material placed in a watercourse without controls.
“That raised a lot of flags for us,” Caiola said. “We conducted a site visit and found they did in fact place unauthorized material within a watercourse without any protections in place. We stopped what was going on because they were in violation of, forget flood management, our water quality standards.”
After a site visit to verify the tip, DEEP issued an official notice of violation directing Dakota to stop all water work within Oxoboxo Brook.
According to Caiola, the developers indicated in general terms that they were unaware they needed authorization.
The Pink Row street in town owes its name to when, decades ago, water streaming through Oxoboxo Valley would sometimes turn pink, contaminated by industrial activities.
Woolen mills, paper mills and fabric mills used to be located all the way down through the valley, Town Planner Marcia Vlaun, who grew up in New London and has been the Montville town planner for more than 30 years, noted.
“Back then, if they were dying some red wool that day, you could drive by and see what color the Oxoboxo was flowing,” Vlaun said. “It’s long since been cleaned up, but yes, it used to flow different colors many decades ago. As a kid, my father worked at United Nuclear Corporation, where the casino is now. In the late 1950s, every once in a while I used to drive with my mother up Route 32 to pick him up from work, and we would get excited to see what color we were looking at that day.”
Oxoboxo Lofts represents another shift away from Montville’s factory days. The town hasn’t had an apartment development of this size installed since 1969. It serves as an example of what Mayor Ron McDaniel has said is the town’s need to expand housing in order to accommodate increased hiring activity at Electric Boat and Pfizer.