Old Saybrook Reboots ‘Mariner’s Way,’ Hires Consultant to Draft Fresh Strategic Plan

A stretch of Route 1 in Old Saybrook dubbed "Mariner's Way" (CT Examiner)


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OLD SAYBROOK – It’s been nearly a decade since Old Saybrook dubbed Route 1 East, “Mariner’s Way,” as part of a push to attract development, but little has changed on the stretch of road connecting Interstate 95 to the town’s Main Street business district.

But First Selectman Carl Fortuna said a lot has changed in the last few years, providing the town with new opportunities to attract developers to the section of Boston Post Road characterized by mismatched businesses and blighted properties.

“Pre-pandemic, we had a bit of a sluggish housing market,” Fortuna said. “It wasn’t the case four years ago, and it wasn’t the case nine years ago, but it is the case now that there’s more of a desire to live on the shoreline and work on the shoreline. So there just may be a better opportunity now than has existed, not only in the last nine years, but maybe 20 years.”

The town is putting aside $89,910 to develop a new strategic plan for Mariner’s Way, selecting a bid from economic development consultants Camoin Associates to refresh the vision for the area that the town can pitch to interested developers.

“We shouldn’t just sit and wait,” Fortuna said. “If investing $80,000 gives us a return in tax dollars over three to five years, we have to try. It’s an underutilized area of town that I think the townspeople would like to look better, and maybe have some attractions that will give them a reason to go there.”

A vision for “Mariner’s Way”

In 2014, the town adopted a plan to revitalize the stretch of Route 1 between Saybrook Junction and Ferry Point, calling the collection of businesses and former industrial sites “Mariner’s Way.” Consulting group CivicMoxie out of Massachusetts was brought in to come up with a vision to put underutilized properties back into use – particularly a 17.84-acre section near the I-95 off ramp that was home to Custom Marine until 2000.

But Selectman Matt Pugliese, who previously served as chair of the town Economic Development Commission, said the 2014 plan focused on marine industrial uses because that’s historically what’s been in the area. 

That plan called for a new Marine Recreation Business zone, which would incorporate the existing businesses oriented towards recreation on the Connecticut River, while allowing larger developments like hotels, college or university buildings, large-scale retail or a sports complex.

Pugliese said a historic use isn’t necessarily the best use, and the area seems to be ripe for housing development. The west end of Mariner’s Way is a stone’s throw away from the train station at Saybrook Junction, and both said there could be opportunity for housing there – especially with the state government’s focus on transit-oriented development.

Both also said the area could be a fit for light industrial uses, potentially for subcontractors of Electric Boat in Groton. There’s a need to house Electric Boat workers as well, Fortuna said, in addition to the already increased demand for housing in Old Saybrook.

Old Saybrook Economic Development Coordinator Jennifer Donahue said the new study would have a market analysis and economic opportunity study to look at how much housing is needed and what kinds of development is realistic.

Pugliese said the town needs that data to know what the market will support, and know what developers to talk to.

“It doesn’t make sense for us as a town to go out and spend our time trying to talk to somebody and build housing if we don’t have any information from our side to show why housing makes sense,” he said.

Challenges and opportunities

The former Custom Marine industrial property is contaminated with petroleum, hydrocarbons and other pollutants, which environmental consultants Tighe and Bond estimated in 2017 would cost about $1.72 million to remediate. Other former industrial properties in the area would also need cleanup before development.

Fortuna said he doesn’t believe the need for environmental cleanup is scaring away developers. The main problem before, according to Fortuna, was a lack of sewers and a sluggish housing market. There are still no sewers, but there’s more opportunity for housing, he said.

If there is a developer interested in a contaminated site, the town can help them connect to grants for cleanup, he said. But the developer has to come first.

“We’re not here to just assist the property owner to drive up the price of the property. That may scare off developers,” Fortuna said. “The idea would be to partner and say, ‘Look, you guys come to your price, then we will work with the developer in getting remediation.’”

Donahue said getting all sides to buy into a vision is key. The land is all privately owned, so the owner and a new developer have to come to an agreement independent of what the town wants. But it also means getting boards and commissions to agree on any changes, like zoning regulations that may need to be revised to allow a development.

“In past efforts, a lot of work was done by a lot of different people, but everybody wasn’t always in alignment with each other,” Donahue said.

Fortuna said they know some of the property owners are willing to sell, and some are actively looking for a buyer. But the town’s role isn’t to force anyone to do anything, Fortuna said. Pugliese said the town’s role is to let the owners know what might be possible so they can talk to the right developers.

“If there’s an opportunity, I think the residents of this town would like us to investigate that and see if we can make something happen,” Fortuna said.

Pugliese said Mariner’s Way is one of the largest pieces of town available for development. Cleaning up brownfields for development is better than clearing green space for it, he said. It’s also a central thoroughfare for the town, and connects to I-95, Route 9 and the Amtrak station, he said.

“Heading south, you get off I-95 and you’re right into Mariner’s Way,” Pugliese said. “So there’s a lot of value in making sure it greets and welcomes residents and visitors to the community.”