Cleanup plans for the former Venus Oil property along the Norwalk River have gotten tentative approval by the Planning and Zoning Commission and Inland Wetlands Board.
“Our concern here is the river,” Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti said at the April 23 public hearing on the plans. “Right now, everything that floods across this site floods into the river.”
The two agencies voted to have their staff draft formal resolutions — which will be brought back for review and final votes on May 14 — granting the estate of Michael Venus a summary ruling from the wetlands board and a site plan approval to restore areas in the floodplain disturbed without permits on the Venus property at 865 Ethan Allen Highway and at the neighboring 901 Ethan Allen Highway property.
A special permit approval for continued operation of a contractors yard at 865 Ethan Allen Highway was also tentatively approved, with a resolution needing a final vote from the Planning and Zoning Commission due back on May 14.
The late Michael Venus, proprietor of the long inactive Venus Oil company, served on the Board of Selectmen, the Police Commission and the Parks and Recreation Commission. He died in July 2018.
His estate now owns the 1.6 acre former Venus Oil property at 865 Ethan Allen Highway — just east of the Norwalk River, behind the Ace Tire shop off Route 7. The site is now used by a various tenants as a contractors yard.
The owners of the adjacent 901 Ethan Allen Highway property had agreed to the cleanup plans — the disturbed area encroaches onto their property — but did not back continuation of the contractors yard.
There was no public comment at the hearing.
There is a long public record on the site. Venus Oil went out of business in the 1990s, and town land use authorities have been pursuing concerns about the property for five years.
In 2014, Planning and Zoning Director Richard Baldelli told the hearing on April 23 that he and former Town Planner Betty Brosius had been called to the site, along with the town fire marshal and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) emergency response team. Earth work was being done at the time.
“The odor of oil that permeated the air was so strong one of the neighboring businesses called the fire department and the fire department called DEEP,” Baldelli said.
A cease and desist order had been issued with five violations, he said.
The town and the Venus estate are due to face off in court over matter in June. Attorney Peter Olson, representing the Venus estate, told the April 23 hearing that one of his goals was to get the situation straightened out before the scheduled court appearance — without admitting to any violations.
Any more ambitious development plans would be something for the future.
“Right now, we’re trying to preserve the status quo and get out from under this litigation,” Olson said.
The special permit approval being sought would legalize and enforce some order on the continued operation of a contractors yard on the site, where there’s a garage type building with four bays, a large long unused oil tank and apparatus for filing trucks with oil, and a “hodgepodge” of trailers, containers and parked vehicles. Tenants there include a heating and plumbing contractor, an auto upholstery business, and several landscapers.
“There are trailers, containers and sheds — I think six, including the shed,” Olson said.
The cleanup plans that won tentative approval include removal of asphalt millings, landscape elements, other fill, and some of the various stored items and storage containers.
Some trailers “will be removed from the site,” he said, but three trailers that are occupied by tenants would remain in use, under the plan.
The property is crossed by a zone line so that part of it is in a two-acre residential zone and part of it is in a B-2 commercial zone. Part of the plan is to “take all the uses associated with the contractors yard and relocate them” to portions of the property that are in the commercial zone.
After cleanup, areas along the Norwalk River would be seeded with a “conservation mix,” access would be limited, and the river would be protected from erosion and sedimentation.
A requirement would be that the work couldn’t reduce the flood storage capacity of the site.
The 45-foot tall heating oil tank on the property is from the Venus Oil business, which ceased operations in the 1990s.
Olson told the hearing that Michael Venus had said he didn’t believe the area around the tank would need environmental remediation.
“He told me the soil was tested and is clean, and that the tank was empty,” Olson said.
Venus dropped plans to remove the tank after the price for recycled metal fell. “It was going to cost him $30,000 rather than earn him $40,000,” Olson said.
Planning Director Baldelli said tank removal would have to be approval by federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps of Engineers.
“The EPA, through the Army Corps, told us if the tank is removed, they would be the ones,” Baldelli said. “...The EPA, through the Army Corps, is the responsible party for tanks of that size.”