NEW LONDON — “Our commission is a joint commission and I’m always cognizant if I’ve got my planning hat on or my zoning hat on,” said Barry Levine, chair of New London’s Planning and Zoning Commission, on Friday.
“Zoning is ‘how does it fit with the rules?’ Planning is ‘what do you want the rules to be?’” he explained.
“In New London, we want the taxes to go down and we want affordable housing and the only way to do that is to increase the grand list and create more development that brings more cash into the coffers — and that increases property values, and if you increase property values, you increase rents… so it’s really a catch-22″
Felix Reyes, Director of the Office of Planning and Development, Michelle Johnson Scovish, Zoning & Wetlands Enforcement Officer, and Levine, met with staff from CT Examiner at City Hall to discuss nine recent text amendments to New London’s zoning regulations as part of a broader discussion of how the city is balancing concerns with quality of life and property rights while encouraging investment and growth.
“All the people who come before us — the applicant and their neighbors and the community — they all have property rights, and my job is to tread lightly on all of these,” said Levine, who described his job as a “balancing act.”
Reyes explained the inevitable tension between the desire for growth and the need for affordable property.
“In New London, we want the taxes to go down and we want affordable housing and the only way to do that is to increase the grand list and create more development that brings more cash into the coffers — and that increases property values, and if you increase property values, you increase rents… so it’s really a catch-22,” he said. “Our household incomes are under $40,000 on average, so it’s hard, it’s very difficult. As Barry mentioned, it’s all about balance.”
A plan with contrary objectives
Part of the Planning and Zoning commission’s job is to implement the city’s Plan of Conservation and Development, known as the POCD, which must be rewritten every 10 years according to state law.
“[The POCD] gives us a basis to make regulation changes,” said Levine, who has been on the commission for 15 years and chair since 2013. “But the POCD often has contradictory objectives — we want nice residential neighborhoods, we want development and businesses, we want all kinds of different uses, we want to preserve historic things.”
Deciding on how to apply the POCD requires the “collective judgement of the commission,” he said.
Two years ago, with assistance from Peter Davis, a former Norwich city planner, the commission rewrote the city’s POCD in-house and from scratch, transforming it into a concise and coherent marketing document in an effort welcome developers and investment.
“The goal with this was to scale it down and make it attractive so it’s something that people could download and if developers come in, it’s something they can peruse quickly and not have to look for things,” said Scovish. “It’s attractive, it has photographs, it’s very eye-catching, and there’s a lot of substance, we say a lot without using a lot of words.”
Zoning a historic city
Given the city’s long history — New London was founded as an English settlement in 1646 — and the fact that zoning was introduced almost three hundred years later in 1927, the commission’s job is extraordinarily complex.
“We’re left with a whole bunch of not-planned development of the city that happened organically over time and that gives us a kind of crazy quilt of legally pre-existing, nonconforming uses,” said Levine.
Between March 7, 2017 to October 9, 2019, the commission has taken a scalpel to this crazy quilt, with nine zoning text amendments, guided by the POCD, and motivated to make smart development possible.
In one case, “commercial recreational” was added as a permitted use in the Light Industrial Office (LI-O) zone, allowing the Hive Skate Shop to relocate to a former warehouse off Shaw St., later approved for an indoor skateboard park by Special Permit.
Another text change also allowed for mixed use as well as standalone residential uses in the LI-O zone, in an area known as Parcel J, that resulted in the addition of 137 residential units. Before the change, retail was required on the first floor in Parcel J — a use that is still allowed, but no longer required, said Levine.
“There’s nothing to prevent the owner of the property, should the economy change and they can get better rents than the residential units on the first floor — they can [still] rent them out as retail,” he said.
Another text amendment increased allowable density in buildings constructed prior to 1983 in the General Commercial (C-1) zone, which allowed the adaptive reuse of larger buildings for residential units, such as the Garfield Mills site — resulting in 90 new units.
In another case, the PZC wrote a text amendment that allowed mixed-use of standalone multi-family buildings in the Waterfront Commercial Industrial (WCI-2), as long as there was no direct waterfront access — resulting in the approval for a special permit for a proposed five-story, multi-unit residential structure of 50 units on Pequot Ave.
Other amendments allow an increase in height of buildings in the Multi-family Medium Density Residential (R-3) zone, as well as a reduction in parking requirements — which will result in the opportunity to create a taller building on a smaller footprint. In a city with little undeveloped land, that change allows for growing the population of the city, and providing green space, while trusting developers to provide sufficient parking without interference from the city.
“[It shows] we’re open for business, that we’re willing to work with them, showing them there is a market here, that it’s worth investing in the City of New London, that we’re on the ‘up’”
Another change will allow the adaptive reuse of former nursing homes as residential treatment care facilities in the R-3 zone — a change, Reyes said, that is in keeping with the market direction for senior care.
Two more text amendments will provide a reduction in setbacks in the Waterfront District (WD) and Maritime District (MD), allowing businesses along the waterfront an opportunity to create outdoor deck areas.
Reyes said the list of amendments is an indication that his office is marketing the city to developers.
“[It shows] we’re open for business, that we’re willing to work with them, showing them there is a market here, that it’s worth investing in the City of New London, that we’re on the ‘up’ … those are all things that work together — it’s one big ecosystem on why we see what we’re seeing here,” he said.
Levine said it was important to meet with applicants before they submit their applications to explain the permit process and advise on procedure and protocol.
“We make extensive use of workshops pre-application so I can meet with Michelle and the applicant in private and have a very candid discussion about things and give them some advice which almost includes you need to talk to your neighbors,” Levine said.
If neighbors come to a zoning hearing and object to a proposal, Levine said he will often tell the applicant to discuss the issues with them — often in the middle of a hearing — and solve the problem so that the hearing can proceed.
“Zoning is a taking, it’s a legal taking of a right”
“You have to work with your neighbors. I’ve had applicants who are surprised by pushback by neighbors they didn’t reach out to and we put the matter to the side, send them out of the room, and we’ve gone on to two more items, and they come back,” he said.
The commission works diligently to keep the application process moving along, he said.
“On this commission, we don’t screw around, we get things done. If you have your ducks in a row, you’re in. We don’t spend one meeting accepting your application, another meeting having a hearing, another meeting making a decision,” he said. “If everything is in order, the application comes to the office, it’s on the agenda, and we decide, there’s no reason to make people wait unnecessarily.”
What zoning is, and isn’t
It’s important to understand what zoning is and what zoning isn’t, what rights property owners have and and don’t have, Levine said.
Zoning is a taking, it’s a legal taking of a right, he explained.
“It’s for three reasons: Health, safety and general welfare. That’s what the Supreme Court said. That’s what gives the state the right to impose restraints on people’s use of property, to set minimum lot size, all these things,” Levine said. “Health, safety and general welfare, it all flows down from that because it is a taking.”
“There is no right to a view. Your neighbor is putting up a building and they’re putting it up in the envelope and it’s allowed in the regulations. It used to be flat land and you could see the river and now there’s going to be a building and you won’t be able to see the river from your front porch,” he said. “You could buy a vertical easement, you could buy the property from them and leave it vacant. You can do all kinds of things, but you can’t tell that property owner — that the rights that they have to their property, which includes the things allowed by zoning — that they’re not going to be able to exercise that. That’s not fair. We have property rights in America.”