EAST HADDAM — It was announced at the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting Tuesday night that the owners of the Banner Country Club Estates withdrew an application for a special zoning exception that would have allowed them to convert an empty 28,000-square-foot banquet hall into about 20 residential units.
Co-owner Anthony Longhitano formally withdrew the application for an amendment change in the Planned Recreational Development/Resort Zone, a floating zone, in an email sent through his attorney and read into the record by James Ventres, zoning enforcement officer and land use administrator for the town.
The change would have allowed buildings exceeding 6,000 square feet to contain more than four units, providing that the buildings were constructed prior to 1973 when the floating zone was established.
Longhitano and co-owner Frank Longhitano, of New Rochelle, New York, purchased the 400-acre Banner Lodge site in 2004 for $6.15 million. In the 1980s, 86 units were approved for construction on the site. Of the 70 to 80 that were built, only 48 are now habitable and about 30 are empty and rotting. The banquet hall was built in the 1930s and had been partially used as a health club in the last few years.
But the conflict between the Longhitanos and the residents of Banner Estates is likely far from over.
For several members of the 20-person audience, several apparently residents of Banner Country Club Estates, the announced withdrawal lacked the finality of the anticipated denial of Longhitano’s request, a result that commission members supported during their meeting on Feb. 11. The commission members had referred the matter to counsel for the commission in order to avoid potential litigation.
Holly Andrews, who said she lives at Banner Estates, asked why the commission’s decision on Feb. 11 to have the attorney write the denial wasn’t considered complete and why the applicant was able to “go the extra step” and withdraw the application.
Commission member Richard Pettinelli said the commission hadn’t voted to deny the application on Feb. 11, but decided to instruct legal counsel to write a motion for the commission to vote on.
“We would have taken a vote on that tonight,” he said. “If we had made a motion two weeks ago and made an error in what we cited as the reasons why we denied or approved it, it opens it up for appeal, and you could very well lose after going through a court case.”
Andrews asked if, by withdrawing, Longhitano could resubmit his application.
“Yes, he can bring it up again. Anyone could bring it up,” said Crary Brownell, chair of the commission.
Pettinelli said the commission could deny or deny with prejudice, meaning a permanent dismissal of the application.
Ventres said whether the commission denied with or without prejudice, the applicant could recraft the amendment request and resubmit it, which appears to be the applicant’s plan.
“From the indication I got from the owner, he said, ‘One of your commission members pointed out that he felt that my application was incomplete and I’d like to have the opportunity to correct that,’” said Ventres. “So, it wouldn’t have made any difference either way, it’s their choice to withdraw.”
The commission would have had 65 days, or until April 1, under the statute to make a decision on the application, said Ventres.
Andrews asked if it was standard practice for the commission to ask legal counsel to craft the denial of an application.
Crary said that a referral wasn’t the norm, but given that the public hearing was contentious, the commission wanted to safeguard its decision from litigation by using an attorney.
“It was heated … and we wanted to cover our butts,” he said.
Ventres said that every time a large application has been submitted to the commission in the last 25 years, the document has been reviewed by an attorney.
Later in the meeting, Ventres said he had talked with the Longhitanos about how to proceed.
“[I said] I think you need to sit down and talk to all of the property owners. You are not free and clear and buildings and roads are not finished,” Ventres said. “You need legal counsel to help you navigate, get someone who understands how zoning regs works. But, the first thing you need to do is come to peace with the people in that development.”