Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
PZC removes restrictions on parcel off Exit 67

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Friday, November 5, 2010 12:53 PM EDT

VERNON — A controversial parcel off Interstate 84 exit 67 has been reopened to applications for big-box development after the Planning and Zoning Commission agreed to remove setback requirements on the property Thursday.

In a move that stunned local conservationists, who only five years ago worked with the town to establish the restrictions, the PZC voted 5-2 to approve a zone change application submitted by Assistant Town Planner and Economic Development Coordinator Marina Rodriguez, which essentially undoes the 2005 measures.

Though Rodriguez appeared before the PZC on Thursday in that capacity, she said she has been put on a “two-month emergency assignment” in the Social Services Department by the town’s administration, and is working on planning applications and economic development only when asked.

Commission member Watson “Chip” Bellows described the 40.5-acre parcel owned by Lee and Lamont real estate as “both a blessing and a curse to this town” for the last 30 years.

The property, which is between the Burger King and exit 67 off ramp with frontage on Reservoir Road, was the site of a 2003 development application for a 186,000-square-foot Wal-Mart. The Inland Wetlands Commission rejected the application, saying it could cause significant damage to the Tankerhoosen River watershed, the headwaters of which are near the site.

In 2005, with the aid of public hearings and a consultant from the site planning firm Planimetrics, the PZC approved a variable setback requirement for the site for buildings more than 40,000 square feet, with a maximum buffer requirement of 200 feet.

That decision was twice appealed in court by Lee and Lamont, but the town’s procedure in amending the zoning regulations was deemed correct, though the merits of the setback requirement itself did not enter into the court’s consideration.

Mayor Jason L. McCoy since has said that a refrigeration company has expressed interest in building an 180,000-square-foot facility on the site, though Rodriguez has said repeatedly that the setback requirement was hindering any interest from developers.

Despite public criticism of his direction of a town regulatory commission, McCoy encouraged the PZC to remove the setback requirement in the interest of economic development and increasing the tax base.

He insisted numerous times that in regard to environmental concerns for the Tankerhoosen River, the town already has water-management low-impact development regulations and no more oversight was needed.

The town does not have any codified low-impact development regulations, a fact confirmed by Town Planner Leonard K. Tundermann during the course of Thursday’s discussion.

Criticism of McCoy’s statements to the PZC also had extended to comments made by commission member Victor Riscassi, who, as an alternate, did not end up voting on the zone change.

Riscassi addressed accusations made by resident Edie Chernack, who said at both a Town Council meeting and a PZC meeting that it seemed Riscassi already had made up his mind about the application based on McCoy’s persuasion.

“I was accused of being unduly influenced by outside forces,” Riscassi said, emphasizing that the “personal accusations” were “totally inaccurate.”

In discussions about the zone change, commission member Chester “Chet” Morgan said he agreed with Tundermann’s assessment of the issue, quoting from a memorandum in which Tundermann said, “I support the proposed changes.”

Morgan and others reasoned that because the commission recently had approved a similar application for a zone change involving a property at 1 Ellington Ave. in the Rockville section of town, it would be inconsistent not to approve the town’s request.

Lawyer Leonard Jacobs represented both the developer in that application and Lee and Lamont in the exit 67 zone change. His argument for both issues was essentially identical: remove the restrictions and let applicants submit development plans unfettered, which the PZC then can assess through the required special-permit process.

“We get two whacks at the apple,” Morgan said while explaining his motion to approve.

But Bellows and Sarah Iacobello, the only two to oppose the change, argued that the town had failed to support its premise for removing the restrictions, which was that developers had been scared off by the variable setback requirement.

“I don’t think the applicant really made their case or proved their case,” Bellows said, adding that “no reasons were given for any developer not following through. … How do we know that other reasons couldn’t be the detriment to development, not the side yard requirement?”

Iacobello agreed, saying the town’s claim that the setbacks were holding back development “was never fully substantiated,” and commission members were given “some very nebulous facts — not even facts — some real nebulous information.”

Bellows successfully added an amendment that requires Tundermann to begin investigating the viability of low-impact development regulations for the Tankerhoosen, which could help manage stormwater runoff on sites with large amounts of pavement and other impervious surface. There is no deadline set for adoption of such requirements.

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