Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
PZC approves former Phelps mansion conversion into apartments

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Friday, April 8, 2011 2:46 PM EDT

VERNON — An application to convert the large residential building at 1 Ellington Ave., known as the Phelps mansion, into 10 apartments won unanimous approval Thursday from the Planning and Zoning Commission, after two years of planning.

Town Planner Leonard K. Tundermann said the crumbling, 8,000 square foot structure was unlikely to be restored to a single-family dwelling because of its size and state of deterioration. Manchester-based developer William Bellock’s plans, “would potentially put a beautiful historic building back into productive use,” Tundermann said.

Built in 1902, the home 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 office, and other businesses until around 2001.

Two families have owned the property since that time, but neither ever filed for a certificate of occupancy.

“They essentially gutted the building … and then they disappeared,” Jacobs said.

He has estimated that the home was boarded up some time between 2004 and 2009, when Bellock purchased it.

With the April 2009 approval of town building department staff, Bellock renovated an adjacent carriage house on the property into seven apartments. Bellock said he would need to build at least 10 apartment units in the larger building to make the project economically feasible, but his plan stalled when it went before the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Bellock was twice denied a variance because the existing lot was 13,589 square feet smaller than the regulations required for 17 total units, and the ZBA ruled that there was not a significant “hardship” present to justify the exception.

So instead, Bellock and his lawyer Leonard Jacobs submitted an application to the PZC to expand an “adaptive reuse” zoning regulation. The developers want to expand the regulation, formerly reserved for vacant mill buildings, to include all 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.

Neighbors who opposed the move pledged to sue after the PZC approved the zone change in October, but they have not followed through on the threats and did not attend Thursday’s hearing.

Since early 2010, veterans have used federal housing vouchers to rent the apartments in what is now known officially as, “The Carriage House of Rockville.”

The veterans receive off-site social services from the Hartford-based nonprofit Chrysalis Center, and representatives from Chrysalis and the Carriage House’s first tenant, Cory Collins, attended Thursday’s meeting.

“It’s just been a beautiful thing, this last year, to have a roof over my head and feel like a man again,” Collins told the commission after thanking Bellock, Chrysalis, and all who have worked to provide housing at 1 Ellington Ave.

An Army veteran, Collins served six months in Somalia in 1993 during the height of that country’s bloody civil war. When he returned, he had difficulty forgetting the violence and still suffers from sleeping disorders and emotional problems.

Eventually, Collins wound up homeless, living in his car in East Hartford, before he was connected with the Veterans Administration, which helped him find Chrysalis and the Carriage House.

“I wasn’t going to come here today because earlier today I buried a cousin, I went to her funeral,” Collins said. “But knowing her, she’d want me to be here, because she would fight for whatever was right. And I believe that me being here, speaking on behalf of my fellow veterans, they would really appreciate that building being renovated so they could have somewhere to call home as well.”

PZC Chairman Chester Morgan excused himself from the proceedings to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest due to his charitable efforts to help the veterans living in the Carriage House. Commission member Walter Mealy took over as acting chairman.

The site plan calls for nine one-bedroom units and one two-bedroom unit. The building also will house a conference room, laundry room, and related facilities to be used jointly by residents of both the mansion and the carriage house.

Eighteen parking spaces will be built with a caveat that an additional 10 spaces will be built if parking becomes an issue at the site.

The Local Historic Properties Commission, headed by Robert Hurd, approved the majority of Bellock’s site plan, and the PZC agreed with Bellock that vinyl siding and window sashes would be acceptable despite their historic inaccuracy because the material is more energy efficient and easier to maintain.

The project’s consultants said the intent is to preserve as much of the existing structure as possible, including columns on the front portico and an original stained glass window.

Chris Bates, the landscape manager and designer for the Garden Barn Nursery, also outlined a plan to restore the property’s grounds to their vintage Victorian state.

There will also be a garden area where tenants can grow vegetables, Bellock said.

No one spoke in opposition to the plan.

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