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Public hearing ends on controversial Norwichtown Burger King; vote planned Oct. 16

September 28, 2018

Norwich — The attorney for a controversial proposed Burger King on Town Street abutting a colonial burying ground told the planning commission Thursday the developer would make concessions requested by historic preservation advocates, but countered claims made by opponents about the project.

But Stonington attorney Mark Kepple, representing the Norwich Historical Society, which opposes the project, called the discussions between the parties “not too fruitful but engaging nevertheless.”

Amaral Revite Corp. has proposed tearing down three 1920s houses at 61, 63 and 65 Town St. and regrading the elevated properties to street level to build a Burger King with a 24-hour drive-thru lane.

Project attorney William Sweeney said the developer has gone beyond normal accommodations in trying to appease concerns about protecting the burying ground.

“You can preserve the integrity of the burying ground and still allow reasonable commercial development,” Sweeney said.

The two attorneys addressed the Commission on the City Plan for 90 minutes during a continuation of a public hearing that started Aug. 21. The commission will vote on the application at its 7 p.m. meeting Oct. 16.

Sweeney said there is no evidence burials ever took place on the properties in question, which he said have been home lots since the late 1600s. He said the developer has hired archaeologist Cece Saunders to study the properties and look for colonial or pre-colonial artifacts or burials. State Archaeologist Brian Jones has recommended a survey prior to construction of the Burger King.

Kepple presented an 1833 map he said shows that burials took place in the area nearly all the way to where Town Street is now. Commission member Frank Manfredi asked whether the surrounding development — the Meadows Shopping Center and a Bank of America on either side — discovered burials during construction decades ago. Kepple said archaeological surveys likely never were considered at the time, and he had no information whether burials were disturbed.

Sweeney said the 1833 map shows only an approximate location of the burying ground and had been altered, with a box drawn in later and a portion whited out. He said the project archaeologist will use the same map and has pinpointed the project property, showing one house at the time. Sweeney said the site historically was one house lot, which was subdivided in the 1920s to build the current houses.

Sweeney said there are no plans to do any blasting on the Burger King property. If a “small amount of ledge” were encountered, it would be removed mechanically.

The application calls for reducing the rear buffer between the Burger King and the cemetery from the required 50 feet to a range of 20 to 40 feet. The soil in that area would not be removed, creating a physical height barrier as well as a distance barrier. But Sweeney said the historical society’s request to reconfigure the building to allow for a larger buffer was not feasible.

Kepple countered the Norwichtown project could be redesigned with fewer front parking spaces and an agreement with the adjacent Meadows shopping center for employee parking.

Kepple also asked that the operation be limited to 6 a.m. to midnight. He said the only Burger King in Connecticut that operates 24 hours is the one near the Foxwoods Resort Casino.

Sweeney objected and said the Norwichtown Burger King franchisee also might not operate 24 hours but the developer wants the flexibility to decide on hours, possibly including 24-hour operation.

The historical society also asked the developer to remove several large deciduous trees at the rear of the Burger King property. Kepple said the trees could come down and destroy centuries-old headstones.

Sweeney said the developer would agree to have an arborist inspect the trees but is reluctant to remove the trees, which appear healthy. He also objected to the idea of planting new evergreen trees along the entire length of the burying ground border with all Town Street properties.

Sweeney said planting trees could disturb burials near the property border. He suggested the developer could donate evergreens to the city, which owns the burying ground behind the Burger King property, but said it would be unfair to require this developer to plant buffers for several other properties.

Norwich Historical Society President William Champagne said the ears of residents in the Norwichtown Green area and of historical society board members have been “perking up” since the project was proposed.

“We don’t want to fight this,” Champagne said. “We want to come to a position where we are working together. I don’t know if that’s possible. It sounds pretty confrontational to me.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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