GUILFORD – The Planning and Zoning Commission held a special meeting Wednesday via Zoom to discuss possible changes to a major overhaul of the town’s zoning regulations, a project the commission has been working on for about three years. Afterwards, a number of local residents spoke to CT Examiner about their concerns, which focused on 3 parcels comprising more than 200 acres of undeveloped land.
Glenn Chalder, a consultant from Panimetrics in Avon, discussed a variety of possible amendments to the new regulations.
Much of the conversation was devoted to ideas and concerns raised by local residents and submitted to the commission — from requesting that an attorney review the new regulations before they were approved, to whether ground-mounted solar arrays, above ground pools, and basketball courts were considered ground coverage.
The most hotly-debated issue involved rezoning three parcels of land along Route 1 currently designated as Multi Use Conservation, or MU/C, parcels.
MU/C 1 is located on the Branford town line, Chalder said, while MU/C 2 is north of Interstate 95, and MU/C 3 is near Route 77.Zoning-Map-set-Jul17
The revised regulations would rezone MU/Cs into Business Multi Use parcels, or BMUs, and would minimize the need for special permits, a change that would limit the opportunities for public opposition or input to development on the parcels.
Chalder told the commission that one public concern was that these parcels would no longer have a threshold for the maximum size of buildings on a property. The current regulation has a threshold of 150,000 square feet.
With the revision, the 150,000 square-foot threshold would be lost, but other restrictions like 25% building coverage, 50% Floor Area Ratio, and 60% impervious coverage, would remain.
Chalder suggested that the commission could rely on the special permit review process for anything exceeding a size determined by the committee.
“As part of our work, the commission looked at different districts and looked at ways to consolidate districts where special permits would not be necessary or desirable,” Chalder said. “We might say in the Route 1 West area or the BMU, this would be when a special permit would be required, under special situations, and a master plan would be submitted. It’s a way to honor the commission’s prior discussions regarding the consolidation of the business zones, but also recognize the Route 1 West Plan.”
The Route 1 West Plan was developed about 10 years ago in a separate process.
“I can’t think of a threshold that would trigger a special permit,” said Commission Chair Scott Edmund. “It feels like, where do you draw that line seems difficult to parcel out. I think it is a priority for the town to do a full Route 1 study. I’m fine with leaving the Route 1 West Plan as is and leaning on the study to consolidate Route 1 into an overall vision.”
Commissioner Ted Sands, though, said he had a huge problem referencing the exisiting Route 1 West Plan.
“I remember when the plan was developed,” he said. “It was not developed by the Planning and Zoning Commission. It was developed by a very small group of very inspired people on the west end who are opposed to development. I think the basic concept was, ‘Leave us out of the development you’re trying to do for the rest of the town, because Route 1 West is separate.’ I think that what is good for the rest of the town applies to the west part of Route 1. I can’t get behind incorporating this Route 1 West Plan as if it was an approved document by the whole town, because it wasn’t.”
Sands also felt there shouldn’t be square footage thresholds for the large undeveloped properties on the west end of Route 1.
“Those are at some point going to be developed,” he said. “There’s a lot of opposition from some people on the west end about that. That’s the way Route 1 is going to end up over the next 10 to 20 years being developed.
“We have to have townwide standards,” he said. “I think what we’re proposing here is what we’re using in the rest of the town. I can not accept the idea that Route 1 West is exempt from all the other requirements, the development rules we have in the rest of the town.”
Alternate Commissioner Larry Rizzolo said developers shouldn’t have free rein to develop as much as they like.
“Do we get our affordable units in a way we have some control over?” he asked. “Do we want to throw it up to some random process or do we want to take a little more control over the process?”
Commissioner Kevin Clark said he didn’t see a problem with keeping the Route 1 West Plan for reference.
“There’s nothing in there that says that PZC has to abide by its recommendations,” he said.
Clark said he didn’t believe the Route 1 West plan was motivated by NIMBY, or “Not in My Backyard.”
“There were 15 to 20 people who live in different parts of town,” he said. “There was a member from Planning and Zoning, the Planning Committee and people I’m fairly certain live in different parts of town.”
Edmond suggested maybe letting the three MU/C parcels remain as they were before.
“After hearing comments, look at these three districts, does it make sense to combine them or leave them as they are?” he asked. “There were a ton of inconsistencies between the three zones. At the time, we thought let’s bring it into consistency. Now do we want to leave them as their own separate thing.”
Sands replied that there needed to be more consistency in how the three plots were regulated.
“I don’t think the standards should be different,” he said. “I think they should all be one designation. What we have now is an incredibly complicated thing. Anybody coming in with development would throw up their hands at the complexity.”
“It makes sense to keep things simple,” Clark said, but also suggested keeping the Route 1 West Plan as a reference, which Edmond said is definitely possible if under special permit.
Chalder, though, said that he wasn’t sure if the Route 1 West Plan could be used to deny an application, but that it could be used to modify one.
Sands asked if the Route 1 West Plan would allow opponents of development to push back against an application “to achieve their NIMBY goals.”
Rizzolo said he had trouble accepting a “one size fits all” plan.
“The whole point of zoning and planning is to look at context,” he said. “MU/C 1 has a different context than MU/C 3. Does it make sense that they be uniform or not?”
Commissioner Bill Freeman said he didn’t understand the difference between a BMU and MU/C.
Edmond said it was worth looking at the differences between the three parcels and returning to discuss them at their next meeting.
The public reacts
After the meeting, which did not allow for public comment, CT Examiner spoke to a number of local residents over the next few days.
“My concern is being somebody that grew up here and came back to raise my children here, I’m afraid that doing away with the Mixed Use Conservation zoning will do away with the special permits and there will be a lack of responsible development,” said Deanine Foley, of Kenneth Circle.
“As someone who grew up here and concerned about the town as a whole, the zoning as it is now promotes responsible development,” Foley said. “I think if it’s the way it is now, there can still be development, but neighbors need to know what’s going on. The town should be able to see a well thought out plan to see how it fits into the overall plan and view for Guilford. The way it is now gives the town the opportunity to know what’s going on.”
Foley said the BMU plan was a poor fit for Guilford.
“I’ve lived all over this town since I was two years old,” she said. “It’ll affect the whole town if one section changes drastically.”
Elsa Green, of Kenneth Circle said she was worried that the changes seemed like a precursor to major development throughout the town and that she was infuriated by what she called a seriously mischaracterized representation of the Route 1 West Plan.
“We’ve worked so hard to keep it looking as a gateway to an agricultural community,” she said. “That was our goal when we were planning this area in 2013. We had a plan and it seems that many of the members seemed to consider staying with that plan, then there was a very vocal opposition.”
“Large tracts of land attract developers and there’s only so much money conservationists have put aside,” Green said. “I recognize that landowners have the right to make money on their land, but people who live in an area should have a right in saying what can go forward. It’s a gross abuse of residents. It would be no longer up to individuals and residents and neighborhoods to determine what the area looks like.”
Green took offense to the idea that former members of the West End Committee that drafted the Route 1 West Plan were “a bunch of NIMBY residents.”
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Green said. “We were just local neighbors that didn’t want certain things. We were categorized as a bunch of pitchfork people who didn’t want to see any development. My name is the only one that said Route 1 West resident who was a part of the Route 1 West plan. It was commissioned by the PZC to review and look to the future of development and preservation. The members of the committee were representatives of businesses and town committees. We were town designated people to look into development.”
Robin Freund, of Ann Road, said she was extremely concerned about the future of the town.
“The PZC is making it easier for developers and they’re not as concerned with what residents want,” Freund said. “Residents have repeatedly said they do not want big box retail. The new regulations are removing the special permit process. That doesn’t allow public input. When there is something proposed it gets rid of public input and lets those big developments go into place.”
She also expressed environmental concerns.
“We’re septic,” she said. “If you’re downstream from a huge development, what does that do to water? There’s no overall plan for the growth of the town and it’s being done piecemeal. I’m not against development, but we need to do it in a way that is responsible.”
Freund recommended the town grow from the center out, and not just sticking a huge development in the “middle of nowhere.”
“I don’t think throwing in 100, 200 unit apartment buildings here, there, and everywhere is the answer,” she said. “Let’s develop Route 1, but responsibly. They’re building this 100 unit complex on Hubbard Road, which has no access to public transportation. Now we’re going to add 100 to 200 cars on the road, instead of on Route 1 where there is a bus route. You’re adding to congestion. Let’s be smart about it. Let’s have a plan. Let’s start with more density that can handle it and not drop things because it’s convenient. I moved to Guilford because of the feel of the community and I love this town. I don’t want to see it ruined. I’m hoping we can create something that’s sustainable and keep the essence of the town intact.”
Perry Wienkamp, of Granite Road, said he is for business, but didn’t agree with the zoning changes.
“It’s too sweeping,” he said. “Reducing conservation and increasing business; that’s a direction the whole town should care about. This impacts not just this parcel but the whole zoning area. That has me concerned for traffic, population density, the look and feel of the town.”
Wienkamp said he would like to see separate regulations for each MU/C property instead of a blanket decision.
“Where I live, we are on Boston Post every day,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of congestion on this particular property. There’s going to be a tremendous amount of congestion over time. I don’t see how they’re not going to be able to put another traffic light or two. There’s going to be population density. We live downstream from this development for mixed use. That development is where the traffic is going to be. I’m not convinced the runoff water is not going to be an issue. If you go into the woods, there will be light pollution, noise pollution, increase in traffic, that’s the one we’ll have to deal with every single day.”
Jon Venter, of Towner Swamp Road said that the public received “very little input from the town” about the changes, and that he felt ignored.
“Slow down and get the pulse of the town,” he said. “Everyone is mortified with what they’re trying to do.”
Venter also took issue with Sands’ depiction of the drafters of the Route 1 West Plan.
“There were PZC committee members on it,” Venter said. “Ted Sands is way off base referring to us as NIMBY.”
“This commission started as an update of language and has morphed into being less restrictive for developers. You have a few vocal people on the committee, but they seem to be driving the whole thing.”
Elsworth Matthias, of Granite Road, said his primary concern was the environment, using the Ben Callahan Recreation Complex on Moose Hill as an example of what not to do with the MU/Cs. The complex is expected to have condos, an athletic complex and a hospital.
“It’s far beyond the scope of what the town of Guilford has ever seen,” he said. “Moose Hill was a geological feature on the west end of town. It won’t be a hill anymore. It’s a drastic change.”
Matthias said he is a steward of The Big Maple Trail, a land conservation trust property that trails around a freshwater marsh with a somewhat fragile habitat.
“This is close by and downhill from Moose Hill,” he said. “That will drastically affect it. It’s a large enough project that it needs studies. It’s poor drainage. There’s a lot of issues there that make it a poor site for this type of development.”
He said the zoning changes woull put developers with profit motives ahead of the public.
“My primary concern is the environmental concern,” he said. “I’ve seen the runoff of Moose Hill come right down into that stream and then into Long Island Sound.”
Linda Mako, of Kenneth Circle, also voiced her concerns regarding the environmental impact of any large development given that she lives downstream from MU/C 1.
“We’re proud of being an agricultural-minded area,” she said. “We understand we need to modernize, and we have nothing against that. Keeping that in mind, I remind people we had done a Guilford master plan of preservation, a west end planning committee that the PZC asked us for. It took a lot of community input and it has taken a departure.”
Mako said she and other residents want places to shop, but want it done thoughtfully like master plans in the past.
“We want to keep the current zoning in place for mixed use and conservation parcels,” she said. “It’s a big change putting business first instead of conservation. We want to keep mixed use because that’s responsible. We don’t want to be misunderstood as no change for the future.”
Michael Scott, of Towner Swamp Road, said that the revised zoning code affects every parcel in Guilford from Branford to Madison.
“This is not a NIMBY concern,” he said. “The rezoning changes the zoning category and standards for the three largest undeveloped parcels along Route 1. They are all very different parcels. Plan of Conservation of Development and PZC have up until this moment recognized those three parcels as special circumstances. They present different opportunities. Because they are so large, special attention needs to be paid to them. If you just apply a 25% building coverage restriction, two of these parcels are over 100 acres. A building that covers 25% of it is an amazingly large building. It’s a million square feet. The numbers get astronomical really fast.”
He said the commission needs to test for unintended results by changing the MU/Cs to BMUs, comparing towns you don’t want to emulate versus towns you do..
“It is my contention that every landowner in Guilford should be concerned about Route 1 West,” Scott said. “It’s the gateway to our community and I’m not aware of a single landowner in Guilford who doesn’t have to contend with Route 1 on a daily basis.”
The meeting was continued until August 16, without a vote.