ESSEX – The Planning and Zoning Commission voted 6-1 on Tuesday to approve an overlay district meant to spur new development on the west side of Route 9 around Exit 3.
The commission approved the measure envisioned in the town Plan of Conservation and Development after scaling back a proposal from consulting town planner John Guszkowski that would have laid the flexible development zone on both the east and west sides of the highway.
Guszkowski has said that the new zone would overlay the properties around the Route 9 exit – now a mix of commercial, industrial, business and residential properties – and let developers apply to build anything on a list of allowed uses, giving them more creativity and flexibility to bring new businesses or housing to the “Gateway” area.
The overlay zone – which could be replicated in other parts of town, including Essex Village – follows the goals of the town’s 2015 Plan of Conservation and Development, which calls for promoting mixed-use development in the already more densely developed areas of town. That includes the Route 9 Gateway, Bokum Corner, and the Villages of Essex, Ivoryton and Centerbrook.
Commission members questioned if there was another way to achieve the same goals, without adding the complexity of the overlay district into the town’s regulations. Guszkowski said that, because there are so many uses allowed in the various zones that make up the area around Route 9, he wouldn’t know where to start in trying to make a single, unified zone.
“You have such a variety of things going on here, you have, I believe six different zones all within about an eighth of a mile of each other, all with different allowances, all with different requirements, all with different setbacks, height uses, and permitting procedures,” Guszkowski said. “Because of the difficulty of the commission attempting to project what the market might bear, what businesses, residential opportunities, employment opportunities might be available there – the purpose of the special development district is to make all of this area eligible for development again.”
A major concern of commissioners in earlier drafts of the proposal was the inclusion of residential properties to the east of the exit, and Guszkowski agreed that allowing the residential area to the northeast of the exit to be developed into something commercial could be a traffic problem.
Geoffrey Paul, who owns the Sunset Pond property to the southeast of the exit, spoke at a November public hearing about his concern that the overlay would lead to development of that area. Paul said he purchased the pond property to prevent development.
Guszkowski explained that Paul wouldn’t be under any obligation to develop the property, but the change would allow the option of development.
Commissioners pushed to exclude the entire eastern side of Route 9 from the overlay. Guszkowski pushed back, explaining that the allowed uses on those properties are limited and could hinder development – especially residential development. In the end, the commission decided to remove the entire eastern side from the change in zoning.
“The reason we have six zones there is it’s meant to basically lock everything in and prevent anything new from happening,” Guszkowski said. “If this commission is satisfied with the way things are currently, that’s fine. This is the commission’s decision.”
Guszkowski also scaled back the list of the allowed uses in response to concerns voiced by members of the commission, that allowing proposals for “retail” developments would be an invitation for big box stores to start applying to the commission. The regulations approved on Tuesday would allow retail only as an accessory use to another use on the list.
The allowed uses that developers can propose to the commission will include restaurants without drive-thrus, offices, television studios, medical offices, arts and crafts studios, event facilities, tourism centers, an inn or bed and breakfast, a gym, multifamily housing and light manufacturing.
Jeff Lovelace, the lone commission member to vote against the new zone, said he was concerned about what potential development would mean for traffic in the area. He said the commission had rejected a proposal from Rite Aid to build a pharmacy at the exit because of the traffic concerns – which Guszkowski said was a questionable reason for rejecting that application because the traffic studies showed minimal impacts.
“There are some people in town that really don’t like this idea, a lot of people I talked to in town are delighted to be here and they moved here from places like Stamford and Greenwich,” Lovelace said. “They’re here because they want to escape what’s going on in other parts of the state. We’re a great kept secret and we haven’t been developed like [other places in Connecticut].”