Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Hearing closes on exit 67 zoning restrictions

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Friday, October 22, 2010 12:08 PM EDT

VERNON — Testimony in the hearing on proposed changes to the zoning regulations off Interstate 84 exit 67 closed Thursday, and the Planning and Zoning Commission was left with plenty to consider.

A number of residents spoke against the application by Assistant Town Planner and Economic Development Coordinator Marina Rodriguez to remove the variable setback requirement on a 40.5-acre parcel owned by Lee and Lamont real estate agency.

The setback requirement was added to the parcel’s zone stipulations in 2005 after public outcry over a 2003 application to build a 186,000-square-foot Wal-Mart, which was rejected because of its potential impact on the Tankerhoosen River and Walker Reservoir watershed.

Property owners Richard Lee and Steve Lamont twice attempted to appeal the 2005 decision, but the PZC’s ability to institute a setback requirement was upheld by the courts.

The application to remove the restriction was submitted in May, but was withdrawn without explanation before public testimony began.

Rodriguez resubmitted the application in September and Mayor Jason L. McCoy has been a vocal advocate of the change, which would eliminate a requirement that gradually increases the size of the buffer area around buildings larger than 40,000 square feet, with a maximum setback requirement of 200 feet.

Proponents say the move would be a boon to economic development by allowing larger buildings on the parcel, but opponents say it is a politically motivated maneuver that threatens the protection of sensitive wetlands.

Gottier Drive resident Ann Letendre provided the PZC with a detailed chronology of the site’s history that started in 1984 when Exxon was denied a permit to build a gas station on the site.

“The environmental concerns have been there for 30 years, not just since big-box development,” Letendre said. “Why on earth are we opening up the door to controversy again? It doesn’t make sense.”

McCoy spoke to the PZC at its Oct. 7 meeting, urging the commission to be cognizant of the recession and remove the setback restriction to make the property more attractive to developers and increase the tax base.

“PZC decisions will last a lifetime, the economic recession will not,” Letendre said.

McCoy’s strong-arm approach to the application has angered many, and several residents who spoke prefaced their comments by saying they disapproved of the mayor’s decision to speak to a regulatory commission as an elected official.

McCoy dismissed objections at the Oct. 7 meeting, saying he was “speaking for the town.”

“If I were in your seat, I would be angry at the mayor,” Anchorage Road resident Janine Gelineau told the PZC. “He definitely was not speaking for me or anyone I know … Was he speaking for a town of 10 people? Two? We don’t know.”

“In all the 40 years I’ve been doing land use in Vernon, I’ve never seen that happen,” Letendre said. “The mayor appoints the commissioners, that’s what makes it inappropriate.”

Property owner Steve Lamont and his lawyer, Leonard Jacobs, both spoke in support of the application and dissected opponents’ arguments.

Both sides “are arguing principles they think are right and are arguing them very well,” Jacobs said.

He framed opponents of the application as people against big-box development who are using the “super-buffers” to preclude development.

“There’s nothing particularly righteous or holy or outstanding about the decision that was made,” Jacobs said, arguing that developers should be allowed to submit applications freely and it’s up to the commission to vote on their merits.

Lamont said he is concerned the restriction “eliminates the use of land just to eliminate the use of land.”

He added that his company has paid $237,000 in taxes on the parcel since 1995 and have been “good stewards” of the wetlands while getting nothing in return.

The only other support for the proposed change has come from Rockville Bank president and Economic Development Commission member William McGurk, who said the EDC has endorsed the measure as a way to bring in tax revenue.

In a letter to the PZC, Reservoir Road resident Glen Montigny pleaded with commissioners, “Please don’t let people who do not live here dictate the landscape of Vernon.”

Lee and Lamont both live in Tolland.

The meeting was continued to Nov. 4.

Copyright © 2010 - Journal Inquirer