Essex Zoning Officials Consider Professional Offices, Main Street Zoning and Wetlands Referrals

ESSEX — One proposed rule change the Essex Zoning Commission is considering would give more leeway to properties split between two Essex Village zones.

The commission is considering five rule changes, and started public hearings on three of them at its Monday meeting on August 17, including a regulation to adjust the two main zones in Essex Village. The other two changes were referred to the Planning Commission for comment before opening a public hearing.

Properties along Main Street in Essex Village are primarily zoned either as Essex Village or Village Residence. The Essex Village zone covers property immediately abutting Main Street, while Village Residence covers most of the rest of Essex Village, with the exception of properties along the Connecticut River which are zoned as Waterfront District.

 A map showing zoning districts on Main Street in Essex Village

Requirements for setbacks are a major difference between the Essex Village and Village Residence zones.

Essex Village requires no setback to the front and 5-foot setbacks from the side or rear of the property. Village Residential requires 30-foot setbacks in the front and rear and 25 feet from the side.

Several Main Street properties straddle the line, with part of the parcel within the Essex Village district and the other part in Village Residential.

Attorney Chris Smith, representing Main Street property owner Thomas Evans, brought introduced the idea of limiting the new regulation to Essex Village and Village Residence zones on Main Street.

In 2018, Smith represented Evans in a petition to change the zoning map to include 26 Main Street entirely within the Essex Village District. That earlier proposal was withdrawn.

Smith said that, rather than create a rule that would address split zones across Essex, the commission should instead limit the discussion to Main Street. Smith said that it is common in Connecticut to place the first 100 or 200 feet along the main street in a commercial zone and the rest in the residential zone.

The proposal introduced by Smith would take the average of setbacks, minimum lot size, building coverage and building height for the Essex Village and Village Residential zones and apply that average for the Village Residence portion of any split lot. The “bulk area requirements” would remain the same for the Essex Village portion of the lots, and each zone would still set allowed uses for the sections of each lot it covers, he said.

Commission member Robert Day first proposed a regulation change to address split-zone lots at the commission’s June meeting. His initial proposal would have addressed the entire town, and would have had each zone on a split property retain its area requirements. Day said the issue was not limited to Main Street, and noted that the commission has previously considered applications about a split property in Centerbrook.

A map of properties crossing zoning districts along Plains Road in Centerbrook

The Wildwood Medical Center Association also petitioned for the commission to change its regulations to add business and professional offices to the allowed uses by special exception for properties in the Village Residence zone.

Attorney Jim Bennett, representing the association, told the committee at its July meeting that he’s not aware of vacancies in the medical center, but that there is the possibility that people could move out. Allowing business and professional offices would expand the market of who could fill any vacancies, he said.

Essex Zoning Enforcement Officer Joe Budrow expressed concern about allowing any property in the Village Residence zone the opportunity to become an office. He suggested limiting office use to properties with at least one acre. Bennett said he had no issue with the acre limit, as long as there was an exception for offices already in existing buildings.

Both proposals were referred to the Planning Commission for its opinion, and will come back to the Zoning Commission at its September meeting.

The commission also referred to the Planning Commission a proposal to add fences, patios, terraces and swimming pools to a list of activities that require a zoning permit. Budrow said it doesn’t add any requirements, as those activities already require a permit, but makes the regulation more explicit. That proposal would also set zoning permits to expire after five years with the possibility of extensions, instead of the current one-year term.

The commission did not consider two proposals that had been drafted for the August meeting, opting to hear an opinion from the Planning Commission before opening public hearings. One would add a list of definitions for terms in the regulations, with the terms coming from floodplain and Gateway regulation. 

The other would have the Zoning Board of Appeals refer applications for variances for improvements within 100 feet of the coastal jurisdiction line to Inland Wetlands.

Budrow explained that the Inland Wetland Agency had removed its review area from the coastal line because the Gateway Commission already prohibits improvements within 100 feet of the coastal line out a variance approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals. 

The agency has had qualms about that change, but instead of reverting to having three entities regulating that area, Budrow proposed having the zoning board refer variance requests in the former review area to the Inland Wetland Agency for its comment.

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