Planning and Zoning Consulting Firm Assists Vernon with Development Zones
By Annie Gentile
VERNON —Two public workshops were held at the Vernon Senior Center this month, the first on March 1 to address issues of future development in the Planned Mixed Use Development (P-MUD) zones at the Gerber Farms area on Route 83 and Exits 66 and 67 off I-84. The second workshop, which followed up on issues and observations raised March 1, was held on March 21.
A six-month moratorium on development in the P-MUD zones that was originally planned to expire in February was subsequently extended until early July, creating the ideal opportunity for the workshop discussions.
The workshops, presented by the Planning and Zoning Commission, were led by Bruce Hoben of Planimetrics, LLC, an Avon-based planning, zoning, and development consulting firm that assists public agencies and private businesses with their land use planning concerns. The purpose of the workshops were to present an opportunity for citizens to become educated about how zoning regulates the use of land and for the public to express their concerns about how Vernon's P-MUD zones should be regulated.
Hoben explained that topography, environmental issues, land access, infrastructure - including whether the land is already on public water and sewer lines - and the surrounding neighborhood all should play a role in determining possible future development. Additionally, a town's Plan of Conservation and Development helps to divide a town into various areas for development and the density of development.
In considering the three areas of concern, Hoben outlined the positive and negative features of each of the land parcels and invited comment from the public. The approximately 35-acre Route 83 Gerber Farms tract, Hoben pointed out, is readily developable with reasonable grades, good visibility, access to full utilities, and it could be a link to high-end development.
Some residents, however, particularly those in the Quail Hollow development off Dart Hill Road, expressed concerns that if the Route 83 site were connected to Dart Hill Road, it might create an unwelcome shortcut potential for traffic to start running through the age-restricted housing development.
There was also discussion about limiting any future development in the Gerber Farms area to high value uses to complement the high value uses presently in existence.
Other residents expressed concern about developing the land at all, and they wondered why the town could not create zoning regulations to prohibit development.
Town Planner Tom Joyce explained that in order for a town to acquire open space, they must acquire the development rights to the land or get a certain percentage of the parcel of land from the developer. Vernon has not adopted large percentage standards.
"You cannot get open space by tinkering with zoning regulations," said Joyce, explaining that what many residents think is now open space is just presently undeveloped land.
Possible development in the Exit 66 and 67 areas also prompted a great deal of discussion among residents. Traces of earlier development proposals for big box retail projects hung heavy in the air - with one resident joking that what the town ought to put in at the exits is another CVS or Walgreens.
While discussion centered around how to best take advantage of the I-84 access at both exits to maximize the town's commercial revenue base, there was no consensus about whether that should include large-scale retail development. Many residents were opposed, citing environmental concerns, heavy traffic from both an influx of shoppers and diesel-fueled tractor trailers, and disruption to the surrounding residential neighborhoods.
However, others felt that the Exit 67 area, with its full service interchange, was the one area in town that could best support big box projects.
Road congestion concerns from any new development at the Exit 66 area of town prompted discussion about creating new roads and connections that would draw traffic away from residential areas, and that would not put an overdue load on access roads like Tunnel and Bolton Roads.
Discussion ensued about creating an office or industrial park or a hotel and convention center in the Exit 66 area and the realistic potential of such markets that could complement present businesses. At all three of the P-MUD zones, residents stressed giving attention to development constraints due to environmental concerns.
Resident Glen Montigny, spokesman for the Rockville Concerned Citizens for Responsible Development, expressed concerns about Hoben's template for development and a suggested statement of purpose and functional name "I-84 Gateway Zone" for the Exit 67 area.
Montigny said such a name would open the doors to turning the Exit 67 portion of Vernon into another large retail zone similar to the Buckland Hills Mall area in Manchester and that the existing residential element in that area would be bulldozed.
"When you start with a template, you don't veer too far from it," said Montigny of his experiences.
However, Hoben said there was nothing in the regulation discussions that night that are cast in concrete.
Various zoning strategies were discussed in the March 21 meeting, with residents and PZC members considering the possibilities of placing building cap sizes on development similar to what has been done in other towns like Tolland and Cheshire, and whether any caps should be on retail development only or all development. Discussions also included defining landscape buffer strategies especially between dissimilar uses or where development abuts residential, screening outside storage and excluding certain types of businesses and residential development.
Information gathered from the two public workshops will be taken into consideration as the PZC continues to refine the current P-MUD zone regulations.