Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
PZC to take up regulation changes Thursday

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Tuesday, January 17, 2012 11:47 AM EST

VERNON — Former Republican Mayor Jason L. McCoy’s proposed changes to the town’s zoning regulations will be up for debate during a public hearing Thursday, but some residents are calling for his successor to nix the revisions immediately.

Members of the Vernon Citizens for Responsible Development have circulated a letter asking for residents to speak against the changes at tonight’s Town Council meeting, and said Republican Mayor George F. Apel has refused to meet with their group.

Apel said Monday he has no intention of withdrawing the application, which would change several uses that require a special permit or exception into permitted use, “by right,” and acknowledged that he declined the meeting.

While the application for PZC regulation changes was made by the mayor’s office, Apel said it’s his understanding that the commission “is pretty much hands off from any political pressure” and it would be inappropriate to step in.

But Ann Letendre, who has been involved in land-use issues in town for 40 years and serves as chairwoman of the Hockanum River Linear Park Committee, the Open Space Task Force, and is a member of Vernon Citizens for Responsible Development, said it’s McCoy’s changes that are inappropriate.

“It didn’t go through the right process,” Letendre said. “What they ultimately do is restrict the right of public hearings and public voice.”

In one of his final acts as town leader, McCoy presented the changes to the PZC in person on Oct. 20.

The application came after McCoy hired lawyer Justin Clark to revise the town’s regulations at a total cost of $6,060, which was taken out of the Planning Department’s budget.

McCoy, a lawyer, declined to run for re-election and is seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.

Town Attorney Harold Cummings has said McCoy did not violate the town charter, which requires three price quotes for any purchase between $5,000 and $10,000, because legal services are not considered a purchase.

Cummings also said McCoy’s use of taxpayer money to make specific regulation changes was not unusual, and “the whole idea is to see what we can do to review the regulations to make the town a more business friendly environment.”

If approved, a host of restricted uses, including bars and liquor stores, restaurants, multifamily dwellings, commercial parking, and retail stores, would become permitted uses in residential, commercial, and industrial historic districts, special economic development zones, planned commercial zones, and the downtown Rockville area.

Because he did not consult the PZC, Town Planner Leonard K. Tundermann, or the plan of conservation and development, Letendre said McCoy did not follow proper procedure as the changes were prompted not by any town-wide need but McCoy’s desire to allow for more unfettered development.

She also pointed out where the changes could have significant consequences, such as the application for TicketNetwork Forest, a planned outdoor concert venue that was denied by the PZC in March 2010.

Developers sought seven special permits related to the service of alcohol, an exemption for more than 40 off-street parking spaces, exemption for structures more than 35 feet high, site plan approval, erosion and sediment control, and activities within an aquifer protection zone.

Hundreds of residents, the vast majority of whom were opposed to the plan, weighed in during a months-long public hearing.

A special permit that would have classified the venue as a “commercial recreational activity,” making it a permitted use on the parcel, was first to be denied, rendering all other permits related to public health, safety, and compatibility with neighboring uses essentially moot, though the PZC denied each permit individually.

Had McCoy’s changes been in place at the time, “it would have allowed it as of right, and there would not have been a public hearing,” Letendre said. “It would not have allowed the commission to apply the criteria of compatibility and nuisance, and that was the reason for their denial.”

If approved, the changes could allow businesses that create a public hazard or nuisance to abut residential areas, creating incompatible neighboring uses that devalue properties for both commercial developers and homeowners, Letendre said.

“Rather than encouraging dialogue up front, which is the direction that most towns are going in planning and development, these regulations are stifling it,” Letendre said. “All they’re going to do is create conflict and suspicion on the part of the residents.”

In a five-page memorandum to the PZC dated Jan. 12, Tundermann detailed numerous inconsistencies and regulatory conflicts created by the changes, and urged caution in approving the revisions without significant review and discussion.

“The commission needs to consider the potential impact of disparate uses adjoining one another and whether sacrificing the scrutiny and review criteria afforded by special permit requirements is appropriate,” Tundermann wrote.

Apel said that regardless of the concerns, he’s staying out of the debate.

“Basically, yes, those regulations were requested by the previous mayor,” Apel said. “I have very little input … that’s been initiated and it’s something that can come to its logical conclusion through the Planning and Zoning Commission.”

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