Chalker Beach Neighbors Voice Fears of Added Flooding if Plan for Whole Foods is Approved

The existing Benny's plaza, where Rhode Island-based Carpionato Group is proposing to redevelop the shopping center to include a Whole Foods and potential retail spaces and medical offices. (CT Examiner)

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OLD SAYBROOK – As many in the area eagerly await a new Whole Foods, residents of a neighboring beach community say they’re concerned an expanded parking lot will mean more runoff into their already overwhelmed neighborhood.

Residents of Chalker Beach said they’ve been inundated with stormwater from development on Spencer Plain Road made worse by inadequate tidal controls.

Stephen Sheehan, an attorney representing the Chalker Beach Improvement Association, told the Old Saybrook Inland Wetlands Agency on Thursday that the community wasn’t opposed to the development, but that the neighbors wanted to see it done in a way that doesn’t add to an existing flooding problem that he attributed in part to the nearly 18 acre Max’s Place shopping plaza at the corner of Spencer Plains Road and the Boston Post Road.

“Chalker Beach – the cup has already overflowed,” Sheehan said. “The camel already had the last straw on its back and it’s broken, and with the development coming forward, we need to see that it does so in a manner that does really no increase on what Chalker Beach is currently suffering.” 

Rhode Island-based Carpionato Group is proposing to redevelop the old Benny’s plaza to make a 65,000 square foot shopping center including a 40,000 square-foot Whole Foods and a possible medical office. It would be the first location for the popular upmarket grocery chain along the shoreline between Milford and Providence.

The project would would add just over a half-acre of impervious surface to the site as currently designed with an expanded 395-space parking lot to meet strict parking requirements for Whole Foods outlets, Geoff Fitzgerald, engineer representing Carpionato Group told the agency.

The proposal for the redevelopment was briefly withdrawn earlier this year so the developer could work out wetlands concerns. The public hearing before the Inland Wetlands Agency last week was the first major step in the approval process.

Before the plan can move forward, the developers will need to secure a variety of approvals from the town, including Inland Wetlands, the Architectural Review Board, a special permit from the Zoning Commission that requires a traffic study, and reviews by the Planning Commission and town engineer.

Attorney Edward Casella, representing Carpionato Group, said the developers intended to give the 1960s plaza a “complete facelift,” installing a new façade, new lighting, new landscaping, a new septic system and new stormwater mitigation system. 

“I think we all understand and can agree that Chalker Beach is in a difficult predicament related to several factors, including sea level rise, more frequent and severe storm events, and a tide gate that controls the outflow from the marsh and inflow from the Long Island Sound that hasn’t been maintained since it was replaced seven years ago,” Cassella said.

But he said those problems all exist as a result of the existing configuration of the Benny’s plaza and everything north of it, including Max’s Place. Cassella said the redevelopment of the Benny’s site wouldn’t add to the issues Chalker Beach is facing, and that the developers “truly believe” the new stormwater controls will benefit them as the current property has “zero stormwater mitigation.”

The current Benny’s shopping plaza abuts marsh lands near Chalker beach (Credit: Google Map Data, 2023)

“We feel strongly that redevelopment of this parcel is long overdue,” Cassella said. “[Carpionato Group] is ready to invest a significant amount of capital to make this property a premier destination on the shoreline.”

Sheehan said a major problem for neighbors is a tidal gateway that hasn’t been maintained since 2016. The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection named the association as the “certificate holder” with responsibility for maintaining it, he said, despite the gateway not being on Chalker property.

He said that the association doesn’t have the ability to maintain the gateway, and the town hasn’t maintained it regularly in years, causing regular flooding when it rains.

And because the beach community relies on septic fields, the flooding doesn’t allow the loose, sandy soil to properly treat sewage, Sheehan said.

“What we end up with it puddles in yards, puddles in roads, and we’ve got e. Coli. We’ve got little kids going through this,” Sheehan said. “The town is not doing what they should be on maintaining, they’re shifting the burden onto Chalker Beach, which does not own the gateway. And when they approved Max’s Plaza and approve other developments, all that water naturally flows down through to Chalker Beach.”

Louis Treschitta, an Old Saybrook resident, told the agency that the marsh at the tidal gate was cleaned out when the new gate was installed in 2016, and afterward it didn’t flood for a few years. But since it began flooding again, state environmental officials has refused to clean out the marsh area on the grounds that it wouldn’t help with the flooding, he said. Treschitta told Wetlands members that clearing to widen and deepen the inflow would improve flow and reduce flooding given the already undersized gate and exit pipe.

Fitzgerald said the Benny’s plaza is a “classic ‘60s plaza” with a lot of pavement and not a lot of landscaping, but he put much of the blame for flooding on rising tides.

“That’s not going to change either way,” he said. “I wish I could do something that could prevent the tide from being two feet higher than it was in ‘88, but that has nothing to do with our application.”

After more than two hours of discussion, the agency voted to continue the public hearing to its next meeting in September – giving more time for public comment and more time for the developers to respond to questions.