MADISON – A proposal to reinvent the Winter Club as a restaurant will finally take a step forward, but not without questions about the future of a zoning tool allowing projects that otherwise fail to meet zoning requirements.
The Madison Planning and Zoning Commission agreed last month to expand where developers can apply for a “planned development district” – a zoning tool which allows the commission to approve a “master plan” overriding local zoning restrictions.
It was the third attempt by restaurateur Frasher Lulaj, owner of La Foresta in Killingworth, to gain the commission’s approval to allow him to open a steakhouse in the Winter Club.
An earlier application would have expanded the opportunity for so-called “PDDs” over a large portion of the town, drawing the concerns of many residents that the change would worsen what they consider overdevelopment of the town in recent years.
The commission approved a more limited change, allowing developers to apply for PDDs in a residential district bordered by Boston Post Road, Stony Lane and Mungertown Road. That includes about 40 properties, but lot size and setback restrictions in the new regulations mean only the Winter Club and Barberry Hills Farm properties would qualify unless a developer bought and combined multiple lots.
“I hear the opposition, I understand their concerns,” Planning and Zoning Chair Carol Snow said before the commission voted to approve the new regulations. “I think some of their fears are unfounded. I do think that when the process is actually put into action and we have a master plan application, we’ll see that it does work.”
Several new developments
Madison Town Planner Erin Mannix said the change opens the door for Lulaj to apply for a planned development district at the Winter Club, and for Branford Developer Adam Greenberg to apply for a district to build 12 single-family homes on a property at the corner of Fort Path Road and Stony Lane that was previously part of Barberry Hills Farm.
Greenberg is seeking approval from the Inland Wetlands Agency, with a continued public hearing scheduled for March 6.
The commission also approved a master plan for a planned development district – a 45-unit housing development on New Road that would consist of 23 buildings with a mix of two, three and four units each.
It’s the second master plan for a planned development district approved for New Road in Madison, after the same developer won approval last year for a medical building directly across the street. Before the recent change, those were the only two properties open to planned development districts.
Marjorie Shansky, an attorney representing developer 155 New Road, LLC — registered to the Horton Group – in both applications, said the housing development would include 5 affordable units.
The affordable units aren’t required for housing developments that use a planned development district, but they’ve been offered by developers in towns that aren’t exempt from the state’s affordable housing law 8-30g, which allows residential developments with affordable units to largely bypass local zoning regulations.
Shansky was asked how designating slightly more than 10 percent of the housing units as affordable helps Madison reach the town-wide 10 percent threshold that exempts the town from 8-30g – and one resident said it seemed like a missed opportunity to build so little affordable housing on a property that looks like one of the best places in town for it.
Shansky said the idea was to keep the town from getting farther away from the state’s target, not help it get closer. She said the developer could consider adding more affordable units, but Mannix said nothing in the regulations required any affordable units.
“It’s simply something that’s being offered by the developer at this time,” Mannix said.
New approaches to allowing more housing
During several public hearings, residents expressed concerns that the new regulations would open the door to more “cluster” housing developments.
They frequently referenced two housing developments that have become unpopular symbols of cluster development with many in town – The Ledges and the General’s Residence. But Mannix told CT Examiner that cluster developments and planned development districts are treated very differently by the commission.
Madison’s rules allow cluster developments by special exception – where the commission has to evaluate a proposed development against a set of criteria outlined in the regulations, she said. If the development meets those regulations, the commission has to approve the development, even if the commissioners don’t think it’s a good fit for the town.
Planned development districts are different. They essentially create a new zone for the property the developer is looking to build on, allowing them to build something on a property that wouldn’t otherwise allow it – like opening a restaurant on a residential-zoned property.
When applying for that new zone, the developer first presents the commission with a master plan outlining the project. The commission has much more discretion to reject a master plan, Mannix said.
“They can scrutinize that and make a determination, really, if they think it’s appropriate in the area,” Mannix said.
Shansky, who pushed for Lulaj’s application, told the commission that planned development districts are a “useful zoning tool,” that is available without restrictions in many towns – unlike in Madison where the commission has limited it to certain areas.
She said she understands the fear of residents opposed to expanding where it can be used, but said the town is going to need zoning tools like the districts to advance its goals of building more affordable housing in town.
“I foresee a lot of resistance to the mechanisms that are going to be in issue to achieve those goals,” Shansky said. “But without the planned development district, you really leave yourself or the developers with only one option, and that is the 8-30g option.”
While she said planned development districts give the commission “absolute control” to say no to a project master plan, 8-30g essentially leaves the commission with no control over a project.
Snow said she thought planned development districts are a possible solution to the “patchwork” of zones in Madison, and that it would give the commission more control and creativity for more mixed-use developments.
“I see this as an opportunity, frankly,” Snow said. “I wish the timing were different, and that we already had our 2023 plan of conservation and development done, and that this was all part of it, but looking ahead, I see these issues going hand in hand.”
Mannix said the commission is updating the town’s plan of conservation and development this year – essentially the master plan for the town’s development goals over the next decade.
Some commissioners and residents thought expanding planned development districts should be done as part of that town-wide comprehensive review, rather than in a pathwork way to accommodate one or two developments. Mannix said she expects it will continue to be a topic throughout the process of updating the plan.
“Absolutely, housing is a key component of that update, so I anticipate there will be lots more conversation on [planned development districts] going forward,” Mannix said.