The state dashed town officials’ hopes of a new train station and the many residential and commercial opportunities it would bring to town with its recent announcement that it was pulling funding for the project. It’s not the first time the proposal has been tabled, with the state teasing the town with on again off again promises to allocate funding for nearly 20 years. The latest plans were brought to the forefront of the state’s agenda in 2015 when the State Bond Commission committed to spending $5.75 million to build new train stations across the state, including a Metro-North station on Marsh Hill Road. Funding was set to be combined with another $4 million previously approved for the project.
This led to meetings between town officials, commissioners and developers eager to transform their vision of a new “transit oriented development district “(TODD) in Orange into a reality. The new district would include desirable housing, shops, restaurants and retail establishments tailored to the needs of professionals commuting to New York City for their jobs. This led to countless meetings of the Town Plan & Zoning Commission to outline the regulations and requirements for the new district and to incorporate into the town’s comprehensive plan of development—the task an item on the commission’s bi-monthly agenda for nearly a year.
“I’m trying not to think about all the time we spent on this,” said TPZC Chairman Ozzie Parente. “We spent a lot of time revising TODD regulations over the past year and it’s been an item on our agenda for months. I know there’s some sentiment on the commission now that if the state isn’t going to build a train station let’s revert and leave the zoning as light industrial.”
No matter how promising plans seemed over the past few years, Parented had remained cautious about whether the project would come to fruition, always stressing to potential developers that any TODD-related applications were dependent on whether the train station was actually built.
First Selectman Jim Zeoli said he was disappointed, but not surprised by the state’s announcement. “Talk about this project started long before I was in office and after this many years I wasn’t sure it would ever happen,” he said. “I’ve met with five different DOT commissioners since I’ve been in office, and while all have been supportive, the Connecticut economy stinks and it hasn’t gotten better. The train station is just one of many DOT projects that are being postponed or cancelled.”
Perhaps the person most affected by the state’s announcement is Ed Crowley, Dichello Distributors’ co-owner and former president, who owns an option on the proposed TODD property, and has been involved in the train station planning since its inception. Crowley was the first to have his application approved to build a 799-car parking garage, 200 residential apartments and 22,000 square feet of commercial space at the TODD site, contingent on the construction of the train station.
His project, submitted on behalf of the Orange Land Development LLC, covered 8.091 acres located beyond the eastern end of Salemme Lane in the town’s Transit Oriented District (TOD). Crowley said he and his development team worked for nearly a year to submit a proposal that adhered to all the TODD regulations outlined by the town.
“The rug really got pulled out from beneath Mr. Crowley, he just received a letter from the state that I felt was amazingly insulting, like ‘Thanks, see you later.’ I feel they should have at least reached out to him. This man has years of time and many dollars invested in planning towards the future of that area,” Zeoli said.
Parente calls Crowley’s piece “the only wild card” in the DOT’s decision as his property already got the zone change. “The options may be Crowley can relinquish the zone change approval or whether the town can take it away,” he said.
Zeoli points out that the train station is just one of several projects Orange was depending on state monies to fund. Road widening and improvement projects on Racebrook Road; the Baldwin Road and Derby Avenue intersection; and Derby Milford Road had already begun or were scheduled to start and are now without funding.
By Laura Fantarella – Orange Town News Correspondent