Thursday, February 26, 2009

Planning and Zoning: "No" to sober, "Yes" to drug drive thru, and still no chair

Planning and zoning denied a special exception to a residential recovery house for patients recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, and approved plans for a drug store with a drive-thru window, in a meeting that began on Wednesday evening and ended early Thursday morning. They also approved applications by Middletown Water and Sewer department, a subdivision of the Home Depot Plaza, and a proposal from the Conservation Commission. And in the news that isn't news department, they failed to elect a chair.

Sober House
Wendi Clark was before the Commissioners with a proposal for a special exception to allow up to 9 unrelated individuals to live as a family in a two family home at the corner of Loveland and S. Main Street (Eye story). She was represented by a very articulate attorney, Greg Kirschner, who works for the CT Fair Housing Center, based in Hartford. Kirschner presented the legal background that he argued made it impossible for the Commissioners to deny Clark a special exception. Geen Thazhampallath, interim deputy attorney for the City, also gave legal opinions.

Kirschner and Thazampallath both agreed that the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibit discrimination in housing on the basis of disabilities, and both agreed that addiction constituted a disability. Both agreed that special accommodations for the disabled were appropriate. They disagreed, however, on whether those accommodations of necessity included the right to living in a group home in a Mixed Use (MX) zone in which both businesses and residences co-existed. Kirschner argued that the Commissioners had absolutely no basis for denying a group of addicts the right to live in this house if they would not deny a traditional family that same right. Thazampallath countered that the Commissioners did have the right to uphold zoning regulations.

Many members of the public weighed in on this application, mostly in opposition. Ralph Wilson, an attorney who has represented many clients at Planning and Zoning hearings (including later this evening the Drive-thru Drug Store), has his offices immediately adjacent to the proposed Sober house. He spoke passionately about the effect of the Sober House residents' cars on access to his property. He was outraged at what Kirschner had told the commissioners, "I'm mad, and this is why I'm mad: This is a bunch of hogwash this guy's giving you." He urged the commissioners to deny the application and offered his services to the city if there was a lawsuit.

Common Council member Earle Roberts spoke about the importance of maintaining a definition of a family that was just like the one he grew up in. Mayor Sebastian Giuliano, who said that he had previously represented Wendi Clark, argued forcefully against the sober house, saying that this was not a situation of a group of disabled people pooling their money to rent a house in the same way that a family would, this was a situation of a landlord making a lot of money renting out individual rooms or beds to people who may or may not stay for very long, "This is a rooming house, masquerading as a sober house."

Edward Madison, former member of the New Haven Planning Commission and overseer of a network of sober houses, spoke to the Commissioners of the importance of resolving sober house issues administratively, not through planning commisions. He said this was the best way to reach a decision that was not unduly influenced by the political pressure that a public hearing includes. He said that litigation could be extremely expensive, noting that the city of West Haven spent $750,000 to take a case to the Supreme Court.

The commissioners unanimously denied the application for an exception, citing the lack of suitable parking space. After the meeting, I asked Attorney Kirschner for his reaction to the ruling. He said that he would be speaking with the City's attorney to try to work out a plan for the sober house that would not involve litigation. He said, "The last thing we want to do is to go to court, but sometimes that's the only option."

Another pharmacy with a drive-thru window
In October, the P&Z approved plans for the congregation of the Shiloh Christian Church to build a new Church Building between Coe Avenue and Old Saybrook Road (Eye Story). On Wednesday night, the P&Z commissioners heard a proposal to build a Walgreens store with a Drive-thru pharmacy on the property they would be vacating.

Over 50 members of the Shiloh congregation, which will be able to build a new church with the money from Walgreens, came to support the drug store project. Sonja Manjon, as Vice President at Wesleyan, also came to support the construction of the Walgreens Store. Several residents of neighborhoods around the site expressed great concern about the traffic on surrounding streets. Other residents expressed concern about the lack of any plans to improve pedestrian or bicycle traffic. Elizabeth Emery pointed out that the professional traffic engineer failed to provide any information whatsoever on any traffic other than automobile traffic.

After hearing from dozens of members of the public, the commissioners debated whether the proposal should be approved. Only Catherine Johnson opposed the project. She said that the city was getting precious little in return for providing a special exception that greatly increased the value of the property. Commissioner Quentin Phipps said that his support for the project was reluctant, other commissioners expressed unabashed enthusiasm for another drive-thru pharmacy. The commissioners approved the project with two amendments: they encouraged the addition of a new cross-walk across East Main Street, and they asked the developer to make 10 of the 65 parking spaces not of asphalt but rather lined with a surface pervious to water.

Other approvals
The commissioners approved three separate projects by Water and Sewer: a water main extending from Moody School out Country Club Road to across I91, a storage building on Berlin Road, and a Bartholomew Road pumping station. They also approved a subdivision of the lot containing the Home Depot on Washington Street, to accommodate plans for a Price Chopper in that plaza. These all passed without substantial controversy.

The Conservation Commission proposed a change to the 1993 Plan of Conservation and Development, to designate the Merriam Tree Farm property as "suitable for acquisition as open space." This is necessary for the city to use money recently aproved by Common Council for the purchase of the development rights. This proposal did not generate much controversy, although one member of the public, Jeff Pierce, did say, "All this designation of open space is a bunch of hooey." Several members of the Conservation Commission spoke to the importance of the Merriam property for open space preservation. The P&Z commissioners unanimously approved the designation.

Still no chair.
In the absence of Barbara Plum, who in December (Eye Story) proclaimed herself chair because she was the last commissioner to have been so elected (in 2007), Richard Pelletier acted as chair for this meeting. Commissioner Pelletier rearranged the order of the agenda considerably from what was posted, to the consternation of several Shiloh congregation members, who were forced to wait with their children until nearly midnight for a decision on the Walgreens application. Commissioner Pelletier said that he had rearranged the agenda for good reasons, but this was apparently done without the knowledge of other commissioners, two of whom apologized for the change in agenda.

Early Thursday morning, Pelletier called for nominations for a chair. Barbara Plum and Deborah Kleckowski were both nominated, although neither was present for the meeting. The voting was inconclusive, as neither candidate garnered the 5 votes necessary for election.


Anonymous said...

Another pharmacy with a drive thru is an outrage. We are left to only wonder which pharmacy will go out of business first. And even more insulting to the community is that the commissioners could not see that the loss of the church on that very prominent corner in Middletown changes the whole look and feel of the neighborhood. Soon Saybrook road will just be another Washington Street. No thanks. I want to live in a neighborhood, not in a sea of strip malls.

Anonymous said...

Church Sells Out Neighborhood

The offer must have been really good! A match made in heaven, so to speak, a church and a drive-through pharmacy combine forces to the further detriment of an unstable neighborhood.

The previous comment is worth repeating:

Mad Dog

Is there no way to prevent the proliferation of these competing drugstore chains? As I understand their strategy, wherever one builds, another zooms in to build next door. Is this really what makes prices go down, more and more unnecessary, cookie-cutter outlets selling the same things? This cannot possibly be beneficial for our town. These establishments should be subject to the same sort P&Z denials as Porno Shops, Massage Parlors, and Strip Clubs. Planning Department! Rise up and help the people you are supposed to serve! Stop issuing these permits!

The state regulates the number and location of liquor permits, maybe they could regulate this type of sinful proliferation as well.

When you add on the polluting aspect of the drive-through "convenience"/competitive edge that accompanies each new location, it enables these businesses to ruin our health and create long term damage at the same moment that they purport to be improving our lives and helping keep costs down.

The Old Growler
Jasper Cane

February 24, 2009 2:59 PM

Anonymous said...

I watched enough of the P&Z meeting on the TV to know who Ralph Wilson roots for when he watches "Its a Wonderful Life". If this keeps up, we will be giving up the naming rights to Middletown - should we just rename now to Wilsonville?

Could Ralph Wilson maybe pop for a clean t-shirt for his chairman while we are at it?

Anonymous said...

Based upon the latest turn of events out of Planning and Zoning, can drive through liquor stores in Middletown be far behind?

Or perhaps another car dealership is needed on top of the dump on Newfield street.

Let's put a dunkin donuts shop on every corner.

Anonymous said...

I live on the far side of the South Farms area. I welcome a new drug store - so that I am not forced to accept the horrible customer service that the East Main St. CVS doles out - I am thrilled that Walgreens is coming. As for the many other locations in town - they are only a good option if you live centrally in town those of us on the outskirts of town welcome this new venture!

As for the comment that the church "sold out" - who are you to make such a comment. That church, of which I am not a member, is filled to capacity each week as I go by. They sure do not have enough parking at the current location and very little land to have outdoor events. Why do you expect them to stay where they are - why can't they - if someone wants to purchase the land of their present church - take that windfall and build themselves a new church.

Now the next step to is upgrade the opposite corners!

Anonymous said...

That these meetings go to 1am is outrageous. The prevailing wisdom is that any meeting over 2-3 hours in length is no longer effective. How much controversy could possibly be going on to have this happen at every meeting!

Anonymous said...

It is an ill wind that blows no good. And the grass will most certainly be greener in the church's new location. In some ways it seems a shame that the new work that was recently done there will now be torn down. But when there is a willing buyer and a willing seller, P&Z are duty bound to help complete the sale. Right?

Catherine Johnson said...

These are all great comments. I would like to invite all of you posting, both pro and con, to participate in the discussions about the future development of the city. Discussions will begin March 19.

Please toss a postcard in the mail to me at 161 College Street (I get too much e-mail).

Anonymous said...

Was Sonia Manjon, Wesleyan’s Vice-President for Diversity and Strategic Partnerships, speaking in support of the drive-thru drug store as a parishioner or for the university? It is possible that moving a church could be considered a Strategic Partnership but without the details of either the strategy or the partnership, it is difficult to understand this supportive position for a Wesleyan University representative. On the other hand , if Sonia Manjon simply wants to support the church she belongs to, that seems entirely appropriate, regardless of any disagreement with that position.