Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Planner proposes undoing Walmart ‘supercenter’ site restrictions

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Thursday, May 13, 2010 1:53 PM EDT

VERNON — An application to change the zoning regulations on property off exit 67 on Interstate 84 has brought up debate over big-box development yet again.

At a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting last Thursday, Town Planner Leonard K. Tundermann presented an application to amend zoning regulations on a 40.5-acre piece of property owned by the Lee and Lamont real estate agency, with frontage along Route 31, or Reservoir Road.

A hearing was continued to the next PZC meeting, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. May 20 in Town Hall’s council chambers.

The property behind the Burger King at exit 67 was the site of a Massachusetts-based developer’s 2003 application to build a 24-hour, 186,000-square-foot Walmart “supercenter.”

The PZC denied that application after eight separate public hearings and several weeks of review. A Superior Court judge upheld the decision in May 2007 after Lee and Lamont filed a lawsuit contending the PZC’s decision was “unfair.”

In July 2004, the PZC imposed a six-month moratorium for development on the exit 67 zone, so “flaws” in the zone’s regulations could be remedied.

The following June, the PZC worked with Planimetrics, a consulting firm, to amend the zoning regulations in the area to prohibit wholesale distribution facilities and kennels, as well as outside storage of chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides. The amendments also included a provision for open-space setbacks, requiring any new project to sit on at least one acre of land with 50 feet of open space on each side of the building.

Those amendments, which remain in force, say that if a proposed building or complex is at 40,000 square feet, the setback requirement increases to 100 feet for the rear and side yards. For each additional 20,000 square feet of building, the setback must be increased by 25 feet, up to a maximum of 200 feet of open space. Fifty yards of setback would still be required for the front of the building.

Lee and Lamont filed suit against the PZC in attempts to both block the development moratorium and the amendments, saying that the PZC was illegally targeting the firm’s ability to develop the Route 31 property, which would be most affected by the changes.

Both appeals were eventually dismissed in court.

The amendments Tundermann presented last week would essentially undo the revisions made by the PZC in 2005 and eliminate the variable setback requirement for buildings or building footprints that exceed 40,000 square feet. That change would add approximately 6 acres to the property’s buildable land, increasing the total buildable acreage, which excludes wetlands on the property, up to 17 acres.

The application to amend section 4.25.2 of the town zoning regulations was attributed to the PZC itself, but commission member Watson “Chip” Bellows said the PZC had no knowledge of the application, and it should be attributed to the town of Vernon instead.

While Tundermann said that attributing the application to the PZC was consistent with past practice for similar circumstances, he said Watson was “correct that the commission had no knowledge of, or directive to proceed with this application.”

Tundermann told the PZC that “the purpose of this amendment is to advance the economic development potential of the zone.” He added that since the zoning regulations were amended in 2005, “there’s been little to no interest in development of that property.”

Tundermann cited references to development around the exit 67 site in the town’s most recent Plan of Conservation and Development, which is being revised and does not apply to pending applications. He suggested that the proposed revisions would have no adverse impacts on surrounding areas.

“I think the change to the 100-foot setback, which is greater than setbacks in all the other zones, would achieve an adequate sense of protection, or an adequate degree of protection to adjoining uses,” Tundermann said.

But Bellows was perplexed by the sudden desire to change regulations that were studied and revised five years ago.

“We spent an awful lot of money to get where we are on this as a town,” Bellow said, “and now all of a sudden we’re coming back to make a lot of changes. I’m really not clear in my mind why we’re doing it.”

“Was this something that all of a sudden, out of thin air, the town said, ‘We’re going to do this’?” Bellows asked.

“There is a town interest in promoting economic development, and this has been advanced as an effort in that direction,” Tundermann replied, but did not specify an applicant, other than the town of Vernon.

“Did this just fall out of the sky?” PZC member Sarah Iacobello asked Tundermann.

Iacobello dismissed the town planner’s assertions that the application was similar to previous applications that amended regulations regarding the storage of boats and trailers and the use of personal storage containers.

“The catalyst behind this is different,” Iacobello said. “There’s a real economic interest behind this one.”

Opponents of the proposed changes to the regulations have highlighted the fact that in 2009, Richard W. Lee and Steven A. Lamont each individually contributed $500 to Mayor Jason L. McCoy’s re-election campaign.

Tundermann reiterated that the application was an effort to remove constraints to development in that zone “that may have been a factor in the lack of development interest in the past five to six years.” He also cited the “present economic climate, with vacant storefronts, vacant restaurant buildings, vacant properties here and there.”

Anchorage Road resident Janine Gelineau commented that if the town is concerned about vacant storefronts, perhaps economic development efforts should be focused on moving businesses into existing vacant buildings and remedying blight in the process.

Commission members asked Tundermann to gather information on the wetlands surrounding the site, as well as data that shows how the zoning restrictions have been inhibiting interest in development on the site.

“I’ve been seeing this more and more creeping into applications,” Iacobello said.

“It’s really development that’s driving the zoning, rather than zoning driving development in the town, and I think that’s something we need to keep our eyes on,” she added.

A lawyer for a resident who lives close to the site said she would attend the PZC’s May 20 meeting with an expert to comment on the proposed zoning regulations.

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