Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
PZC approves regulations change to allow for redevelopment of large, aging structures

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Friday, October 8, 2010 12:16 PM EDT

VERNON — Despite neighbors’ threats to appeal the decision in court, the Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved a zoning regulation amendment that clears the way for the redevelopment of large, aging structures such as the mansion at 1 Ellington Ave.

Developer and property owner William Bellock applied for the amendment that expands on a redevelopment regulation that previously was restricted to mill buildings.

The regulation was established to foster adaptive reuse of the town’s mills, which had become functionally obsolete when the woolen and textile manufacturing trade died out in New England.

Bellock and his lawyer Leonard Jacobs argued that functional obsolescence is not limited to abandoned mills, and developers should be allowed at least to submit applications for redevelopment to the PZC, which then can use the required special permit process to vet proposals.

The approved amendment limits proposals for adaptive reuse to buildings in the town’s historic districts that are at least 100 years old, with at least 5,000 square feet of finished floor space.

The application came after Bellock had twice been denied a variance for the Ellington Avenue property by the Zoning Board of Appeals, which operates under a set of guidelines and cannot revise regulations as the PZC does.

Bellock, who already had renovated the mansion’s former carriage house on the same lot into seven one-bedroom apartments with zoning officials’ blessing, argued that the mansion could accommodate 10 one-bedroom units.

The existing lot was 13,589 square feet smaller than the regulation required for 17 total units, however, and the ZBA ruled that there was not a significant “hardship” situation that would justify the change.

Bellock argued that renovating the mansion into a single-family home would be economically unfeasible, estimating that it would take approximately $500,000 just to refurbish the more than 8,000-square-foot building, an expense no single family would be willing to take on in the current economy.

Not a single-family home

Built in 1902, the mansion was a wedding present from Hockanum Mills Co. owner George Sykes to his daughter and her new husband, Charles Phelps, Connecticut’s first attorney general.

In 1957 the property was turned into offices and housed a law firm, travel agency, doctor’s practice, and other businesses until around 2001, when the Moynihan family purchased it and applied for several building permits.

Though they had listed their address as 1 Ellington Ave. on documents at the time, there is no record of the Moynihans ever having applied for a certificate of occupancy, and after some half-hearted attempts at remodeling, abandoned the property.

The next owner did nothing with the building, and Jacobs estimated that the home was boarded up some time between 2004 and 2009, when Bellock purchased it.

Though traces of its grandiose past still linger, the once-lavish mansion now sits gutted and rotting, a prominent eyesore on the corner of Ellington Avenue and Prospect Street. The exterior features windows shattered by rocks, and the interior contains sloppy sheetrocking, peeling walls and ceilings, and numerous holes and gouges where original fixtures and other valuable decorations have been ripped out.

Explaining their frustration with the ZBA’s denials, Jacobs argued that Bellock was being punished by the town’s regulations for wanting to renovate a blighted property.

He also emphasized that approval of the zoning amendment would affect all historic structures more than 100 years old with at least 5,000 square feet of floor space, and would not guarantee approval of future adaptive reuse applications for Bellock’s or any other property.

‘See you on appeal,’ opponent says

But area neighbors who opposed Bellock’s redevelopment of the carriage house are equally upset about the prospect of apartments in the mansion, which they said should be kept as a single-family home.

Opposition leaders Christopher Crowne and Barry Rimmler attended Thursday’s meeting with their lawyer, Bruce Fader.

Fader tried the patience of commission members by continually attempting to speak after public participation had been closed at the Sept. 2 meeting.

Fader submitted a letter explaining his clients’ reasons for opposition, but was dissatisfied with Town Attorney Harold Cummings’ response, and was allowed to submit another similar letter, which garnered a nearly identical response from Cummings.

When Fader attempted to submit a third letter on Thursday, several weeks after public participation had ended, PZC Chairman Lester Finkle refused to acknowledge Fader, angering Crowne and Rimmler, who shouted at one point, “How about some due process?”

After Jacobs made his closing statements, Finkle called for discussion on the application and commission member Watson “Chip” Bellows instead made a motion to approve the application, saying he agreed with the reasons laid out in the motion to approve, and disagreed with those in the opposing motion.

Bellows applauded Bellock’s investment in the property, but said he was not necessarily advocating it be renovated for multifamily use.

“I think this is a win-win situation for us, and I think it’s an opportunity,” Bellows said.

When Finkle asked for a second, several commission members raised their hands at once, and the application was quickly approved, 7-0.

Commission member Chester Morgan excused himself from the application because of his involvement with a charitable organization benefiting military veterans who live in the carriage house apartments.

Commission member Sarah Iacobello also excused herself, saying she didn’t want to invite accusations of bias because of her membership on the Historic Properties Commission.

After the vote, Rimmler stood up and began shouting at the commission.

“You just passed an illegal regulation,” Rimmler said. “I’ll see you on appeal.”

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