MIDDLETOWN – A recent court ruling could upend the local Planning and Zoning Commission’s requirement that a supermajority approve any application, and would reverse the commission’s recent decision to deny approval to a proposed methadone clinic on Washington Street.
The decision from Middletown Superior Court Judge Rupal Shah comes in response to an appeal the Root Center filed after it was denied a zone change to build a methadone treatment clinic where Fine Tunes Auto Repair is on Washington Street.
It was the first application for a methadone clinic made after the commission unanimously ended Middletown’s prohibition on methadone clinics that had been in place since 1989.
After a series of contentious hearings where residents spoke about the need for opioid treatment, and neighbors said the proposed location in a residential area on busy Washington Street was a bad fit, the Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission voted narrowly to deny the permit – with four commissioners voting in favor and three voting against.
In many cases, a 4-3 vote in favor would mean that a motion is approved, but Middletown’s charter requires at least 5 votes on its seven-member Planning and Zoning Commission to approve an application. Combined with the rule that no more than four members of the commission can belong to a single party, the 5-vote rule is meant to ensure that any decision has bipartisan consensus.
But according to Shah, Middletown’s charter contradicts state statute, which says regulations and zoning boundaries “shall be established, changed or repealed only by a majority vote of all the members of the zoning commission.”
It is clearly established in Connecticut law that municipal charters, ordinances, regulations and bylaws are preempted when they are in conflict with state law, Shah wrote in her decision issued on Nov. 12. And in Middletown’s case, the charter clearly conflicts with the state statute, so it is clearly preempted, she wrote.
The commission argued that zoning is a local concern, and that the five-vote requirement doesn’t violate state statute, because that statute doesn’t prohibit local commissions from having a stricter voting standard than state law – it just prohibits a decision made by less than a majority of the commission.
Shah was not persuaded, writing that, if a commission could easily change the requirement set by state law, it would render that law meaningless.
“If anything other than a simple majority of the whole commission was required, the legislature presumably knows how to draft the provision accordingly,” Shah wrote.
Shah wrote that the commission should have considered the 4-3 vote an approval of the zone change at the proposed site of the methadone clinic. Shah said the commission has to go back and review Root Center’s application for a special exception and site plan approval, which the commission unanimously rejected in 2020 since it would not have been allowed without the zone change.
The Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission is meeting Tuesday at 7 p.m. to discuss the lawsuit and the possibility of appealing Shah’s decision. Middletown General Counsel Brig Smith and Planning and Zoning Chair Thom Pattavina could not be reached on Friday.