BY ANGELJEAN CHIARAMIDA
---- — SEABROOK — US Foods and the hundreds of jobs it would bring if it moves to Seabrook could be lost if the Planning Board doesn’t approve the fueling facilities that the project calls for, before Nov. 30.
The national food distribution giant’s current 188,000-square-foot facility in Peabody has been too small for years, and US Foods officials are seeking to relocate to the 80-plus acre, 505,000-square-foot Poland Springs warehouse site on Ledge Road.
The company is prepared to spend tens of million of dollars to improve the dry storage, loading docks, vehicle maintenance bays and office space already there, while bringing in large refrigeration and freezer space.
But for US Foods to spend $62 million on the project — $35 million to enhance the site and the rest tp buy the property — it must be able to build exterior diesel fueling depot and truck wash facilities, as well as enlarge the light automotive maintenance area for its 77-vehicle fleet.
Although in Seabrook’s industrial zone, the property is also in the town’s well protection area.
While an interior auto repair space was previously approved by the Planning Board years ago when Poland Sprint’s site plan was signed off on, the move to bring fuel and a truck wash onto the property required a variance. That was granted by the Zoning Board of Adjustment last month.
Earlier this week, US Foods made a detailed conceptual presentation to the Planning Board on the “not double, or triple but quadruple” environmental safeguards, US Food’s Senior Director of Corporate Real Estate Jeffrey Barnes said the company will install and maintain so pollution of the recharge area won’t occur.
“This is a very important project for US Foods,” Barnes told the board.
When Planning Board chairman Don Hawkins asked Barnes what the company’s time frame for approval was, Barnes was blunt.
“We need a decision in November,” Barnes said. “We turn into Cinderella on Nov. 30.”
The company has been clear that quick action is needed. In discussions for at least two months, Barnes and others have met with selectmen, Town Manager Bill Manzi, department heads, as well as the Planning Board to explain that the time crunch is mostly due to the demands made by the owner of the Poland Spring’s property, as well as Nestle Waters, which leases it.
Town officials have said they’d work with US Foods to help it meet its time restrictions, due to the benefits of the project, which would bring the 270 current employees to town, as well as adding about 100 more jobs over the next three years.
Barnes was clear on Tuesday. The agreement to buy the property can’t be extended, he said, and he won’t authorize spending about $27 millions to purchase the property if he isn’t assured the Planning Board will approve the fueling/maintenance/truck wash addition.
“I loved the presentation, but I don’t know if it’s good or not,” Hawkins said. “This is our aquifer.”
Hawkins expounded on the need to follow the board’s usual, and often time-consuming, process. He said he wants to see engineering plans and send them out for an opinion by an independent engineer, before he said would feel comfortable considering approval. That customarily takes months, he told Barnes.
“We have no more time after Nov. 30,” Barnes said. “I’m getting very uncomfortable as I’m hearing this.”
Water Superintendent Curtis Slayton, Building Inspector Paul Garand and acting Sewer Superintendent Philippe Maltais have reviewed US Foods written plan for the fueling, maintenance and washing facilities. At the meeting, they praised the safeguards and said they support the project. They said upon close inspection of engineering plans they may want to “tweak” some aspects of them, but didn’t believe that would include anything US Foods wouldn’t accept.
Garand reminded the board that the previously approved Poland Springs site plan was one of the best Seabrook had seen, and it included light maintenance bays. The board’s role was to approve only the new fueling and truck wash, he said. If not for those two additions to the original site, Garand said, approval wouldn’t be necessary as the project falls under an existing use for the zone.
Planning Board members appeared impressed with the conceptual protections the company promised to provide. They include a double-walled, triple-layered 20,000-gallon diesel tank at the fueling depot that will sit in a “concrete bathtub,” large enough to hold more than its entire contents should it leak. The tank is built to sustain itself without failing if there is a fire raging around it for two hours, US Foods’ architect Tim Gibbons explained, and the entire area — including the three maintenance bays, washing facility and fueling depot — will be covered with a canopy to prevent storm water pollution.
In addition, it would take a spill of more than 100,000 gallons to exceed the edge of a concrete containment area that would also construction as a secondary safeguard, company officials said.
Barnes asked for “conditional approval” of the project Tuesday night, with the understanding that after the board’s engineer reviewed the plan, US Foods would comply with extra safeguards the board felt were necessary.
The request brought nods from a number of board members, but Hawkins was hesitant.
With the urging of board member Jason Janvrin, it was decided that department heads will meet in a special technical review session with US Foods officials to study the conceptual plans. Any suggested tweaks will be discussed at the next Planning Board meeting on Nov. 19, when conditional review of the project will again be considered.