STONINGTON — The first phase of a major overhaul of the town’s zoning regulations is nearly finished and will go to Planning and Zoning Commission and a public hearing in September for possible approval. The new draft cuts the original 348 pages of local rules and regulations by more than a third.
At a virtual public information session on July 24 – which will be repeated in person on August 17 at 7 p.m. at the Board of Education building – Francisco Gomes, Senior Project Manager with FHI studio, the consultant on the project, said that the town’s land-use regulations were originally adopted in 1961 and have been updated and revised on a piecemeal basis over the years, by various town planners, the zoning commission itself, and applicants applying for zoning changes.
According to Gomes, the result was numerous inconsistencies in language, formatting and terminology. “That gets to be a problem over time,” said Gomes.
At the virtual session, Ben Philbrick, chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission, said the last rewrite dating to 1979, or 44 years ago.
“We are overdue – much has changed with their state statutes, amendments and of course within our town itself,” Philbrick said.
Gomes said that the first phase of the rewrite had fixed “multiple errors, inconsistencies, ambiguities and various omissions,” reducing the original 348-page document to just 199 pages.
He said the old regulations contained references that were dated, sources that no longer existed and redundancies.
“In addition the regulations have awkward and cumbersome wording in many sections, run-on sentences, passive language and overly complex phrasing – and that just makes it very difficult to read, follow and use,” he said. “These are some of the many issues that we are seeking to correct in this phase one update.”
Gomes said the land-use regulations should be user-friendly for applicants, planning staff and commissioners with consistent rules and language use for all of the zoning districts.
According to Gomes, the current regulations are not compliant with recent statutory changes, and part of the process is to ensure that the new regulations would withstand legal challenges.
“There has been a flurry of legislative activity surrounding zoning and land use over the past two or three years and the zoning regulations in Stonington, like many other communities, have not kept up,” Gomes said.
Gomes said the new regulations were also informed by recent case law not yet reflected in state statute.
“We want to ensure that we’re following best practices as suggested by case law. It very often takes legislation a long time to catch up with case law, so we are going beyond what statute enables in zoning by also looking at how that plays out,” he said.
Gomes said his group had also reviewed the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, plans for coastal resilience, affordable housing and open space, as well as the town’s regulations for subdivisions, wetlands, aquifer protections, and others.
“So I’d like to impress upon everyone that we believe that the changes we’ve made to date and the changes that we will consider moving forward as part of phase two will be consistent with the recommendations of these various plans, and consistent with the regulations established by these other regulatory documents,” he said.
Overly restrictive vs overly permissive
According to Gomes, the town’s zoning regulations are “overly restrictive in some areas”, with “very high standards and requirements for specific districts for certain uses” and “overly permissive” in other districts where there “were not a lot of regulations for specific uses.”
Gomes enumerated uses permitted in the new draft, including soapmaking, and the keeping of pigs and rabbits on farms.
“We’re not talking about introducing these things to any household. But we just took pigs and rabbits off the prohibited animals list for farms. We did, however, add language to ensure that the keeping, breeding or raising of animals for laboratory purposes is prohibited, which we believe was the kind of the original intention of much of this regulation,” Gomes said.
He said more flexibility was also provided in the new regulations to allow for rebuilding compliant with FEMA standards.
“Essentially being a coastal community, you’re subjected to big storms that can impact a lot of properties at once. And we just improved the language to make it clear that not every single application for restoration for property impacted by a storm has to go through Planning and Zoning Commission approval again,” he said. “There’s still a lot of guardrails around this, but we were just trying to ease the potential impact that that might have on reconstruction associated with any major storm events.”
Gomes said that his group also added language to ensure the preservation of retail uses for mixed-use buildings on street-facing first floors within residential mixed-use districts.
“We added some language to ensure that residential uses occur on upper floors or to the rear of the building and not street facing. And that’s really to protect the intent of the mixed-use building – that it has some sort of retail or service function that fronts the street,” he said.
He said special permit requirements were loosened so that owners would not have to go through the entire special permit process to, for example, change the name of the restaurant or expand a kitchen by a small amount of square footage – provided that the change does not intensify the restaurant use.
For accessory dwelling units, Gomes said the town’s regulations were overly restrictive and the rewritten to expand the allowable size of new apartments.
“[The regulations] were very over restrictive, which means there have been very, very few applicants or applications for an accessory dwelling unit that come to the town. Essentially, they were limited to 33% of the total floor area of the primary structure and we increased that to 50%,” he said.
The rewrite also increased the permitted size of minor accessory buildings like sheds, from 100 square feet to 200 square feet, which Gomes said “basically means that you don’t have to come in for a zoning permit for these minor accessory buildings – you can build them as of right, as long as you’re in compliance with setback standards.”
Gomes said the new regulations were also loosened for handicap ramps in front yards.
He said the town’s rules for parking lots were updated to ensure the size of parking spaces and parking aisles and other dimensions were consistent with current best practices.
“[Our goal was] to really minimize the amount of impervious surface that has to be constructed to adequately serve parking… So we were balancing between ensuring that people can move in and out of parking lots of parking spaces with ease and do so safely without overbuilding these things, adding costs and adversely impacting the environment,” he said.
One regulation tightened by the new rules, was changed to limit parking recreational vehicles on a residential property to no more than one vehicle.
“Right now there is no limit so you could have your RV and boat and tow-behind camper and anything else you could conceive of. There’s simply not a limit so we put a limit on that.”
A public hearing, but no public vote
During the virtual session’s Q&A, one resident asked whether the first phase of the rewrite would go to a voter referendum.
“No, it does not go to a referendum, it goes to a public hearing, so it’s not it’s not a town-wide vote. It is a public hearing by which the Planning and Zoning Commission would vote to adopt,” Gomes answered. “And it is a public hearing, which means, of course, that you as a member of the public and as a resident have the right to attend the hearing and testify.”
Gomes said that in phase two, which could start as early as September, his group will look at the allowed uses and permit requirements – including bulk area and height regulations, density, parking and sign regulations, and commercial and industrial zones.
“And most importantly, as part of phase two, we’re gonna do quite a bit of community engagement, which will include an online survey and multiple focus group workshops to invite you into the process earlier, so that the community as a whole can participate in this next phase of the updates,” he said.
In the Q&A, Maggie Favretti, co-founder of the Alliance for the Mystic River Watershed, said her group saw the zoning update “as a tremendous opportunity to contribute to risk reduction for both slow and sudden threats in the watershed.” She said her group was planning to create an “integrated and comprehensive watershed plan” and was looking for opportunities to integrate the zoning regulations into the plan.
She also asked whether FHI studio or Gomes had done research into best practices with regard to climate risk reduction and using zoning regulations as a way of encouraging “environmentally wise” behavior.
Gomes said the format of the workshops has not been determined but they were meant to be used to address a range issue and topics.
“I know environmental topics such as the watershed will be critical [and] coastal zone issues as well. So yes, I would say that there will be an opportunity for you and your organization to participate and be represented at a workshop. Depending on the timing of the watershed plan, it could be very informative to our phase two work as well,” he said.
Gomes said phase one was “really the beginning of this process not the end,” and emphasized to residents that his group was “here to hear your concerns.” But he told members of the public attending the session that the updated regulations would be immediately beneficial to the town.