Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
'Open space' shouldn't include parking lots

By David Batchelder

Reader's Forum
Journal Inquirer
July 2, 2005

During Vernon's recent moratorium on new construction in Planned Mixed Use Development zones, Planimetrics of Avon was hired as a consultant to work with the Planning and Zoning Commission, town staff, and the public to revise PMUD zoning regulations.

After many public hearings and numerous revised drafts, new regulations were written by the PZC and presented at a public hearing on June 9.

A key part of the PMUD zoning changes is the incremental increase in open space required for buildings more than 40,000 square feet in order to buffer surrounding neighborhoods from detrimental effects of traffic, noise, pollution, litter, and lighting. The commission felt that increasing open-space requirements for larger buildings was reasonable, and still allowed for a variety of uses and building sizes in the PMUD zones. This incremental approach was first suggested by acting PZC Chairman Mark St Germain and proposed by Commissioner Mary Kelly on June 9.

Kelly's original proposal called for uncapped open-space increases of 25 feet per each additional 10,000 square feet of building space more than 40,000 square feet. It was evident during public testimony and discussion that developers, town staff, and some PZC members thought these requirements were excessive. At the June 13 PZC meeting, after much discussion, the maximum open-space cap was set at 200 feet. This compromise on PMUD open-space requirements passed the PZC unanimously.

Kelly's open-space proposal was based on definitions of "open space" and "impervious surface" in Vernon's zoning regulations. These define "open space" as: "Area of lot not covered by structures, buildings, or other impervious surface excluding uncovered steps and chimneys," and "impervious surface" as: "A paved surface, building, or other structure which does not allow water or other liquids to penetrate to the ground below."

These definitions are straightforward —parking lots (paved surfaces) are not allowed in open space areas.

Imagine the astonishment of commissioners and the public when Town Planner Tom Joyce, informed us that the definition of "open space" in the regulations had been routinely ignored for the past 15 years. Since their inception in 1989, he explained, the PZC, town staff, and town attorneys have "interpreted" the definition of "open space" to allow parking lots in these areas. He further elaborated that since the town had allowed parking lots in open space areas for 15 years, it would be "illegal" for the town to now start interpreting these definitions as they are written.

I'm not a lawyer, but I do understand the English language. The current definitions in Vernon's zoning regulations are quite clear. It is disconcerting that anyone could misinterpret these definitions to allow paved parking lots in open-space areas. But this is what's been happening in Vernon for the past 15 years.

Our town planner is scrambling to amend the "open-space" definition to allow parking lots these areas. This change would undermine the painstakingly crafted compromise reached on PMUD open-space requirements passed by the PZC on June 13.

The definitions of "open space" and "impervious surface" in Vernon's zoning regulations should not be changed to cover up years of misinterpretation by town officials and commissions. Variances for paved entries and access roads would be a reasonable approach.

No parking lots should be allowed in PMUD open-space areas. This is what Vernon's zoning regulations presently and clearly state, and this is the premise upon which the compromise on PMUD open-space requirements was reached.

The writer is a member of Rockville Concerned Citizens for Responsible Development, a founding member of Smart Growth For Vernon, and in 2004 was the Working Families Party candidate for state representative.