Unwanted Route 9 Development, a Concern for Essex Planning and Zoning

ESSEX — In the first public hearing on a proposal to give businesses additional flexibility to develop a variety of new projects around exit 3 on Route 9, members of the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission raised concerns that the change in zoning could pave the way for development which they felt was wrong for the area.

According to consulting planner John Guszkowski, the proposal includes a list of allowable uses that align with what is already allowed in the mix of existing zones that surround the exit, but aren’t necessarily allowed across the entire area.

Guszkowski said that the new “overlay zone” would give developers the flexibility to present proposals that match the area, but not their particular zoning. He explained that the application process would begin with a developer submitting a conceptual master plan to show the commission why it would be appropriate to change the underlying zone to fit their planned development, and if the commission approved the change, the developer would still need to return with a special permit application for the actual development.

Commission member Mark Reeves voiced a concern that if, for example, a corporation wanted to build a hotel at the exit, it would engage with a team of attorneys and engineers that could manipulate the commission. Reeves said the commission doesn’t know what sort of development would be proposed.

If the town made the Route 9 area a destination, Reeves warned, it would damage the downtown area. He questioned what was the purpose of the change without something “really dramatic” that they needed to allow.

“I look at this and say, I want it to be as tough as possible. If it’s tough on people and takes them longer to get through the process, then I’m a happy camper,” Reeves said. “If we’re giving them the tools to allow them to combine things and play with things, then I’m looking at that and saying, that’s not what I want. I don’t want the Milford-ization of Essex because we decided that we should put in nodes everywhere.”

Guszkowski said that the proposal came in response to the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, which identified the area as one of five potential development nodes in the town.

Town Land Use Official Carey Duques said that given her conversations with major property owners in the area, there wasn’t overwhelming interest in using the overlay zone. Duques said that while one property owner expressed some interest, another was not interested at all, and others shared concerns about the potential for allowing lodging and the possibility that the area would compete with Essex village.

Guszkowski said the list of possible uses included an “inn or bed and breakfast,” but not hotels or other lodging.

Alternate commission member David Rosengren warned that lawyers could make a lot out of terms like “retail” and “light manufacturing.” He suggested that given the potential of dealing with developers interested only in making money, and not in the best interest of the community, wording mattered.

Responding to concerns that “retail” could draw big box stores to the area, commission member Jane Sirls said that while Guszkowski may want to be more specific with the language, a big box store would clearly be rejected by the commission.

Rosengren said he didn’t agree with the argument that the commission would make the right decisions when faced with developments that could alter the character of the town or draw business away from downtown.

“This commission isn’t going to be here forever. This administration isn’t going to be here forever,” he said. “But what will be here forever are the people who are going to attempt to take advantage of these words.”

Commission member Robert Day said he would likely support the proposal unless there was opposition from residents, but he said that the added complexity of the rules did give him some pause given how difficult to navigate the town’s zoning regulations were already.

“What I would love to see at some point is just to rewrite everything, as we started to do when it was just zoning, and making everything a little bit easier to navigate,” Day said. 

Sirls said she expected some resistance from other members of the commission given that people were generally reluctant to allow change, particularly in Essex, where not much changes. But Sirls said she saw the overlay as an opportunity to bring jobs or a variety of housing options that would bring vitality to the community.

“In that regard, I’d like the commissioners to think about what the possibilities are, and not to think of this as destroying the fabric of our community,” she said.

Sirls did say that concerns raised by other members were valid, and that Guszkowski and Duques should revise the proposed regulations, based on comments, before returning to the commission — though she noted it would require a significant rewrite.

“I’m just wondering if rewriting the zoning for these specific areas might make more sense,” she said.

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