Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Zoning restrictions around exit 67 cause consternation at PZC meeting

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Monday, September 20, 2010 11:59 AM EDT

VERNON — Members of the Planning and Zoning Commission say they are frustrated with the lack of institutional memory about why the town approved regulations that restrict big-box retail around exit 67 off Interstate 84.

Economic Development Coordinator and Assistant Town Planner Marina Rodriguez has introduced a proposal to amend the regulations governing development of a 40.5-acre parcel owned by Lee and Lamont real estate agency with frontage on Reservoir Road, near exit 67.

The amendment, which would eliminate variable setback requirements for buildings of more than 40,000 square feet, was essentially the same proposal pitched by Town Planner Leonard K. Tundermann in May.

That plan was introduced May 6 and was scheduled to continue May 20, but after the application received a lukewarm response from commission members and generated an uproar among residents concerned for the area’s wetlands, it was hastily withdrawn before the public hearing could continue.

Though no single town employee would take credit for the application, Mayor Jason L. McCoy said at the time, “We’re going to look at the issues that were raised at the meeting. …We’re going to look at it and bring it back.”

The application has been brought back, but commission members pointed out Thursday during a discussion about the proposal that nothing has changed, and no new information seems to have surfaced.

The issue began in 2003 when an application to build a 186,000-square-foot Walmart on the site was rejected by the town’s Inland Wetlands Commission, a decision later upheld by a Superior Court judge in May 2007 in response to a lawsuit against the town by Lee and Lamont.

In its rejection of the plan, the wetlands commission cited possible degradation of the area’s wetlands, which are the headwaters of the Tankerhoosen River, from heated, chemical-laden storm water running off Walmart’s proposed parking areas.

As a result of the controversy, the regulation was amended to require that additional open space be incorporated into the rear and side yards of the parcel for buildings of more than 40,000 square feet, with a maximum requirement of 200 feet.

But five years later, the town is insisting the regulations are an unnecessary burden on the parcel, and Rodriguez took considerable heat from frustrated commission members Thursday who grilled her about the specifics of the application during a tense exchange.

“In 2005 this commission adopted the current incremental setbacks,” commission member Sarah Iacobello told Rodriguez, explaining that this was achieved with help from consulting firm Planimetrics and several public meetings.

“That wasn’t free, so I’m wondering why we’re taking a step back to completely reverse what we did in 2005,” Iacobello said.

Rodriguez said the amendments were inhibiting development of the parcel and eliminating them would help spur economic growth.

“These requirements have not guided responsible development, instead, they have precluded any development from being feasible,” Rodriguez said.

Under pressure from commission member Watson “Chip” Bellows, Rodriguez clarified that statement, saying the setback restrictions ended up limiting where on the parcel a building could be situated.

If the restrictions were eliminated, Rodriguez argued, a building could be positioned closer to the highway and away from the Tankerhoosen’s headwaters, rather than situated in the center of the parcel with equal setback depth on each of three sides.

Rodriguez told the commission that “about nine or 10” developers have looked into the parcel in the last few years, two or three of which requested to see design regulations.

None of the interested parties were ever heard from again, Rodriguez said.

“They didn’t want to deal with that. …It has prevented the zone from being developed,” Rodriguez said. “I can’t justify the increased setbacks unless you just don’t want anything there, in which case, why have a development zone?”

Upon questioning, Rodriguez said she did not know what the justification for adopting the setback requirements was in 2005, only that she could not justify them now.

“I just don’t think it holds any water,” Bellows said of Rodriguez’s assertion that the setback requirements were preventing development, blaming the lack of interest on the economy. “In truth, throughout the United States everyone’s having the same problem. Nobody’s interested in building.”

Bellows added that he felt both his commission and the wetlands commission already had spoken on the issue, and became visibly upset when communication started to break down between commission members and a frustrated Rodriguez.

Not all commission members felt the restrictions should remain, however.

“This is our economic stimulus for Vernon,” said Victor Riscassi, arguing that in light of the economy, restrictions on development of the parcel should be lessened.

“We’re just expanding the probability of it being used,” commission member Francis Kaplan agreed.

Rodriguez also emphasized that the commission still would have control over development applications at the site, including a special permit requirement.

But Iacobello was staunch in her objection to this and other proposed amendments to zoning regulations that have come before the commission recently, suggesting a moratorium on such applications so the commission could review all regulations itself.

“I don’t think we should zone by special permit. … I don’t think that’s zoning. I don’t know what to call it, but that’s not zoning,” Iacobello said.

Several residents and members of the wetlands commission attended Thursday’s meeting, but the application was not opened to a public hearing.

The commission voted to continue the application to its next meeting Oct. 7.

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