Essex Plans First Step Toward Flexibility, Discretion for Development

ESSEX — Town officials are proposing a change in zoning around exit 3 on Route 9 – an idea that could be replicated in other parts of town, including Essex Village, if approved. The change is meant to give developers more flexibility to develop a variety of new projects in the area.

Essex Town Planner John Guszkowski said any developer interested in using the development zone would start by presenting a conceptual master plan to the Planning and Zoning Commission to convince it to change the zone to allow for their project. If the zone change was approved, they would come back with a detailed site plan for the commission to approve, he said.

Guszkowski said the idea of the overlay zone is to allow greater flexibility and creativity in development than allowed by the current zoning, a mix of commercial, industrial, business and some residential uses. Under the plan, each property would retain its existing zoning, but would be eligible to apply for a variety of uses.

“Because there’s such a wide range of property types and uses that both the market and commission can’t really anticipate the specific future uses of a property, this tool gives developers or property owners an opportunity to respond to the unique uses that the market may demand, and will allow the commission to consider a type of use that they hadn’t really considered, and that the current regulations haven’t envisioned,” Guszkowski said. 

The idea aligns with the first goal of the town’s 10-year Plan of Conservation and Development, or POCD, adopted in 2015, to promote “mixed-use, compact, architecturally-appropriate development” in the villages of Essex, Ivoryton and Centerbrook, and in the key hubs of Bokum Corner and the Route 9 Gateway off of exit 3 – where most of the town’s dense, commercial development is located.

Guszkowski said the goal of the development overlay zone is to promote the kind of development the plan envisioned – higher-density and mixed use. He said that if this zone is approved, town officials would move ahead with applications — some of which have already been drafted — for the other districts mentioned in the town’s planning.

According to Guszkowski, the new overlay put the goals of the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development at the center of discussions regarding development, a change from the current process. He said that means that the fundamental question the commission would have to answer in reviewing a proposed master plan is whether it advances the goals of the POCD.

The beauty of the overlay, Guszkowski said, is that the decisions are “almost entirely discretionary,” for the commission.

“Once you’ve got something like a special permit or straight zoning permit, the regulations are already in place for that use and that area, and there’s the assumption that, generally speaking, it’s supported by the plan of conservation and development,” Guszkowski said. “In this case, it’s a much more open question.”

Guszkowski’s proposal for the new overlay zone, which will have a public hearing at the commission meeting on Oct. 5, includes a list of permitted uses that developers could propose a master plan for, including restaurants, medical offices, event facilities and mixed-use developments. He said applicants would need to choose from uses on the list, or apply for an amendment to the list.

“We developed this over the course of several months with the Planning Commission a couple of years ago,” Guszkowski said. “It’s sort of a consensus list, a wish list.”

The application also includes a list of prohibited uses, including adult stores, marijuana growing facilities or dispensaries, gun stores and tattoo parlors.

Asked at a May commission meeting if they could approve all of the potential overlay zones in one shot, with one set of rules – Guszkowski said he thinks they need to do them area by area, because there are different characteristics in Ivoryton and Essex Village than in Bokum Corner and the Route 9 Gateway.

“What this [overlay] recognizes is the different uses and different properties, even within this small area, there’s a wide variety,” Guszkowski said. “You have the steam train, the witch hazel works, you have now the apartment buildings, and you’ve got pieces of the industrial park. A single set of development standards is tricky, because it gets the commission in the role of guessing what development will be.”

Board member Robert Day said at that commission meeting that he liked that this approach gave developers the flexibility to bring projects that are good for the town, but was concerned that someone could spend thousands of dollars coming up with a master plan to propose, only to be rejected by the commission. Essex Land Use Official Carey Duques said she would be working with any applicants so they could understand the commission’s expectations.

Board member Jeffrey Lovelace said he was concerned that people had purchased property in that area thinking it was residential, and the commission would be turning it into a development district that could allow theaters or arenas. 

“I remember in the past when Rite Aid tried to come in and put a nice pharmacy there, and we went through all sorts of gyrations and traffic studies and so forth to say that’s not what we really want when people come off exit 3 there,” Lovelace said. “How do we prevent Marriott or something like that with deep pockets who says let’s put a nice Marriott hotel and theater in this area?”

Guszkowski said that if someone had enough property for a development like that, it would be up to the developer to show the commission that their master plan is what’s best for the property before the commission would approve “landing” the development zone on their property. If the zone was approved for the property, the developer would then need to get site plan approval from the commission – which would involve going through the full special exception process, he said.

Commission member Tom Carrol questioned how the idea of encouraging development fit in with the effort to conserve open spaces. Guszkowski said the POCD aimed to encourage development in areas where development already exists – like the Route 9 exit and Essex Village – in order to reduce development pressure on other parts of town.

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