Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Proposal to ease development restrictions at exit 67 pulled back

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 11:48 AM EDT

VERNON — An application to change the zoning regulations that govern the site of a contentious 2003 plan to build a Walmart was withdrawn shortly before the continuation of a public hearing on the issue, but officials won’t specify who pulled the paperwork.

“We’re going to look at the issues that were raised at the meeting. We’re going to look at some of the concerns that people have,” Mayor Jason L. McCoy said Tuesday. “We’ll look at it and bring it back.”

The proposed changes first were brought to the Planning and Zoning Commission for a public hearing May 6.

Town Planner Leonard K. Tundermann presented the application to the PZC, explaining that the town was proposing zone changes to the land around exit 67 off Interstate 84 in an effort to spur economic development.

The property, a 40.5-acre parcel owned by the Lee and Lamont real estate agency with frontage along Reservoir Road, must adhere to zoning regulations that were amended in 2005.

In addition to a standard 50-yard buffer requirement, the amendments say that if a proposed building or complex is 40,000 square feet, the setback requirement increases to 100 feet for the rear and side yards.

Under the amendments, 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 still would have been required for the front of the building.

The site, which is behind the Burger King off the exit, was where a Massachusetts-based developer proposed building a 24-hour, 186,000-square-foot Walmart.

The Inland Wetlands Commission denied the application after several public hearings and a superior court judge upheld the decision in May 2007.

At the May 6 public hearing, PZC member Watson “Chip” Bellows said the PZC had no knowledge of the application to change the regulations and argued the changes would undo the work that was done with consulting firm Planimetrics in 2005.

“We spent an awful lot of money to get where we are on this as a town,” Bellows 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.”

Tundermann said the town submitted the application to encourage development on the site, though the change would affect only buildings with a large footprint, such as big-box retailers. Wetlands already prevent portions of the parcel from being developed, but if a variable site restriction was removed, Tundermann said the parcel’s buildable area would increase by six acres, for a total of 17 acres.

The sudden effort to ease restrictions on big-box development startled many commissioners and residents, who questioned where the idea to reverse the amendments came from.

“Did this just fall out of the sky,” PZC member Sarah Iacobello asked Tundermann at the May 6 hearing.

Residents who had opposed the Walmart application were gearing up for another zoning debate, but that fervor ceased once word spread that the PZC’s agenda for May 20 had been changed.

The original agenda that was distributed for the May 20 meeting included a public hearing for the proposed changes to exit 67. But commissioners had new agendas waiting for them at the meeting that did not include the hearing.

Tundermann, who had been the de facto spokesman for the changes that were attributed to both the town and the PZC, was absent from Thursday’s meeting due to illness.

Upon his return to work Tuesday, Tundermann said he was unaware the application to change the regulations had been withdrawn. He later confirmed that it was and said he did not know why.

McCoy said the town was responsible for pulling the application, but would not credit any individual for proposing or preparing the application, calling it simply, “an economic development issue.”

“You have an area there that is ideal for expanding the tax base and there is a buffer zone, apparently, that was put in several years ago, not based on much,” McCoy said of the site. “I believe the prior Mayor didn’t want it, didn’t want anything to get developed there.”

McCoy said the 2005 amendment that made it near impossible for a big-box retailer to locate there was a targeted political response to Walmart that was not scientifically founded.

“I don’t think there was a basis originally, when they expanded the buffer zone, it was kind of a knee-jerk reaction,” McCoy said.

Former Mayor Ellen Marmer, who was in office during the Walmart debates, disagreed.

“It has always been my purpose to create sound development at the exit 67 area. There is no need to change the regulations to suit one particular developer,” Marmer said Tuesday.

“It’s a critical area that needs to be studied in its entirety, and it’s not just related to one developer, it’s related to the whole area as it would fit into our plan of development and increase our economic base,” she continued, saying any changes need to be “made very carefully, and not in any type of spontaneous, undirected manner.”

McCoy did not say what type of development he would like to see on the site, “Anything that’s appropriate off an exit,” would be desirable.

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