GROTON — In a public hearing Wednesday, the Zoning Commission heard both positive and negative public feedback on proposed updates to the Town of Groton’s zoning regulations.
In a presentation before about 30 people at the Town Hall Annex, Jeff Davis, senior planner with Horsley Witten Group of Providence, an engineering and environmental consulting firm hired for the zoning revision, explained the town’s motivation for changing its zoning regulations.
“First and foremost, we wanted to make the regulations easier to read and understand and we also wanted the processes for development and permitting to be clearer,” he said. Other goals included creating performance standards, reflecting contemporary uses of land and updating the regulations to comply with current local, state and federal laws.
The commission discussed comprehensive updates of the zoning regulations in more than two dozen meetings over the course of 18 months, said Davis. The process began with a 2017 audit of existing zoning regulations that found that the regulations hadn’t been updated in 30 years.
One proposed change would establish a Mixed-Use Town Center (MTC) zone, in the current Downtown Design District and some surrounding areas, to encourage redevelopment of strip malls and single-story, single-use buildings into multi-story, mixed-use structures, said Davis.
“We’re hoping this will meet the regional market demand for this type of use. We know that there is a lot of desire for this and we want Groton to be able to capture some of that market and take advantage of the economics of that,” he said. “But we also hope this can serve as a ‘true town center’ and gathering spot for the entire town. It will be more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, facilitate public transit and create new public spaces.”
Establishing the MTC zone in downtown Groton would be “nothing short of a groundbreaking step by the town to begin making our community more sustainable,” especially in light of thousands of expected new-hires at Electric Boat over the coming 20 years, said resident Zel Steever, who said he attended many of the zoning meetings over the past three years.
The new regulations will change Groton from a town “dominated by the automobile and suburban sprawl to one that reflects a more modern, livable, energy-efficient, mixed-use community where all people can live, work, shop, meet and play,” he said.
Another new zone, the Mixed-Use Village Center (MVC), would be similar to the MTC but on a smaller “village” scale, Davis said. The MVC would be slated for areas around the Poquonnock Bridge and Old Mystic.
“The hope is you’d be building on the existing historic character of these areas and allowing for much greater flexibility of uses — such as live-work spaces, retail on the ground floor with residences above — that traditional village sense that we’ve sort of lost in our current zoning,” he said.
The idea of changing Old Mystic from its current RU80 zone to the MVC was not popular with several residents including Michele Peters, who said there were many people who walk, bike and run in her neighborhood.
“I don’t see that intensifying that area of town is really going to work,” she said. “I can say that all the property owners I’ve talked to in my neighborhood are happy with the RU-80 (rural residential zone) and strongly oppose this big change to an MVC zone.”
Resident Ken Peters said the change to an MVC zone would allow property owners in what is now a heavily residential area to subdivide their lots into 5,000-square-foot parcels and add commercial and retail spaces allowed in the new zone.
“It just doesn’t make sense. I urge the commission to take another look at the Old Mystic area,” he said. “Why would we change it to something else… if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
The update includes two new green zones — Green Recreation (GR) and Green Conservation (GC) — that delineate the types of activities allowed on conserved lands.
Eugenia Milagria, who represented Groton Conservation Advocates and herself, said the new regulations were “more environmentally protective” and “farsighted in encouraging mixed-use development to revitalize our downtown area to avoid more suburban sprawl.” She expressed concern, however, that the proposed changes allowed “overly-impactful activities or buildings in highly-sensitive green conservation areas and even green recreation areas,” she said.
Resident Jim Furlong asked that the language governing building sizes in green zones be modified from a percentage of the property size to a square-footage limitation. He said the regulations would allow buildings to cover 3% of a Green Conservation area, translating to a 3-acre building on a 100-acre tract. In a Green Recreation area, 5% could be covered by buildings, translating to a 5-acre building on 100 acres, “an incredible amount,” he said. Furlong asked that the Zoning Commission set “more modest limits in square footage” for buildings in green zones, particularly in conservation districts.
Al Valente, chair of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, praised the Zoning Commission and said the rewrite would boost economic development and make Groton attractive to developers.
“We live in a very competitive area so we want to make sure Groton is perceived as being very business-friendly,” he said.
Reached by phone Thursday, Jon Reiner, Groton’s planning and development director, said the Zoning Commission will weigh all of the information, including public feedback, presented at the June 19.
“Between now and then, staff will take any of the editorial suggestions and comments from DEEP and other agencies, and we’ll draft up some possible changes,” he said, adding that the Zoning Commission makes the final decision on any and all changes.
Wednesday’s public hearing was continued to June 27 at 6:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Annex, 134 Groton Long Point Rd, Groton. Go to GrotonctZoning.com for more information.