Thursday, March 28, 2013

Commission Rules Against Proposal For Zoning Change

The Planning and Zoning Commission voted unanimously to deny a proposal to restrict commercial development from the residential area around Wesleyan. The Commissioners' vote came without any deliberation or discussion, after they had listened to over an hour of testimony from residents concerned about their neighborhood, from property owners looking to sell property for its maximum possible price, and from the lawyer representing a developer who has proposed a shopping strip abutting the residential neighborhood.

The Character of Middletown
The proposal was in the form of a zoning code text amendment submitted by Ed McKeon. McKeon is a resident of the Wesleyan neighborhood and a member of the Board of Education. McKeon's text amendment would stipulate that land in the ID (Institutional Development) zone be governed by an RPZ (residential) zone rather than the MX (mixed use) zone if the institution was not using the property. Residences could be turned into many commercial uses under an adaptive re-use provision, but property would not be able to be used for drive-through banks or used car lots, currently permitted in the MX zone.

McKeon admitted that he had an ulterior motive in proposing this change, "I proposed this change to the ID zone as a reaction to the proposal to expand the commercial impact of the MX zone. ... I propose this change in the ID zone as a way to consider some things that are at risk. The character of Middletown, the character of of our neighborhoods, the lives of our core-city and nearby residents..."

McKeon read from the document that guides all decisions by Planning and Zoning, the Plan of Conservation and Development, saying, "additional protection in an ID Zone fits firmly with your guiding principles." He pointed to multiple passages that emphasize the importance of encouraging owner-occupied homes in the downtown historic residential areas.

Jenn Proto presented research on the economic value of historic districts to the city. She cited an extensive study of real estate values in several towns in Connecticut which demonstrated that protection of historic neighborhoods increased the value of real estate. Proto suggested that this was in part because protected neighborhoods offer stability and predictability to potential home buyers.

"The green elephant"
Ralph Wilson is a land use attorney representing Bob Landino, who has proposed developing a shopping center on Washington, between Pearl and High Street. Wilson repeatedly stated that the proposed zoning code text "makes no sense." He also pointed to the Plan of Conservation and Development for support. His primary argument was that it was wrong to reduce the possible uses of land, calling McKeon's proposal "down-zoning".

Two property owners who have agreed to sell their land to Landino also spoke against the zoning code text change.

Lee Osborne is a former chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission, he justified his opposition by emphasizing the importance of commercialization, "The elephant in the room, ladies and gentlemen is money. If you look at all these areas that have been zoned MX for years, why haven’t [businesses] been built there? Because it doesn’t make financial sense! Why is there now a movement to do something on Washington Street? Because, at 22,000 cars a day, the people interested in leasing property there, are saying, ‘that’s where I want to be’."

He went on to dismiss business opportunities on Main Street, "They’re not interested in being on a vacant store front on Main Street because they cannot have the drive-through and they don’t have the volume of traffic going by to make this happen."

John DeSena did not speak to general principles, he said he was opposed to the zoning code text change because it would stop him from doing whatever he wants with his lot, "I want to be able to do what I want to do with it. Not what other people want to tell me what to do with it."

DeSena said that he had a plan, "Me and Mr. Osborne got together, we approached a developer, we’re trying to do something. Now I think that it’s unfair that so many people want to stop me and Mr. Osborne and the other woman from what we want to do with our pieces of property."

Stephen Smith, a resident in the area, spoke near the end of the hearing. Smith seemed to appreciate Osborne's bluntness, but he urged the Commission to look beyond money, "I appreciate Lee bringing up the money. Because there’s an elephant in the room and it’s green but I don’t see how that concerns you. You voted previously to amend zoning code that will now will allow Lee to make more than market value. But now you also have now diminished the value of someone else’s property. Someone else’s property is worth considerably less."

Smith called on the Commissioners to take a proactive role in City Planning. He decried the process in which a developer and then an individual separately proposed what he considered flawed zoning code text changes. He said, "It’s out of control." He called on the Commission to table the McKeon proposal and to turn their energy to Planning, "You should table this, you should not do this, and you should stop letting other people do your job."

"All those in favor..."
After the public hearing was closed, Commissioner Nick Fazzino tried to introduce a motion to deny the proposed text change. After some confusion, Commissioner Molly Salafia very clearly read the entire text change and made a motion to approve it, so that the Commission could proceed to a discussion and then vote.

Chairman Rich Pelletier waited for discussion or comment on the proposed amendment. None was forthcoming, so he called for a vote. The text change was defeated unanimously.

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