CLINTON – A proposal to turn a former motel into an apartment complex faced concerns from commissioners and residents at a Planning and Zoning meeting Monday that the redevelopment would push out poorer residents currently living there on short-term leases.
During the public hearing on Westbrook-based Dattilo Group’s plans to develop a complex of 40 one-bedroom apartments – with four designated affordable units – other commissioners felt the project would be a welcome facelift to the property, but worried a “floating zone” the developer is proposing sets a dangerous precedent.
The property, the former A Victorian Village Inn at 345 E. Main St. on the border with Westbrook, has been leased to residents who can’t afford to live elsewhere in Clinton, Commissioner Cinzia Lettieri said at the meeting.
“We have residents who can’t afford to live in long-term rentals, and because they most likely can’t afford to live in apartments or buy a home in Clinton, I’m concerned we haven’t talked about if they will be displaced,” Lettieri said.
A letter from an anonymous tenant that was read into the record said there are at least 35 people who would be left homeless if the project went ahead, mostly manual laborers who can’t afford market-rate rents.
“We go to bed hopeless and we wake up hopeless,” the letter read. “[Three] cabins have lived there 13 years while Dattilo took their rent.”
Dan Ackerman, with Dattilo Group, said they are not looking to charge “exorbitant prices” for the new units and price people out. He said they would try to avoid disturbing existing tenants as much as possible.
“It’d be our intention to try to retain the current tenancy as much as possible, and we’d work with them in order to do so,” Ackerman said.
Dattilo attorney Andrea Gomes said there have not been conversations with current residents yet. But she said they have to consider the Fair Housing Act, and giving existing tenants or Clinton residents preference for the new units keeps other people from having fair access.
Dattilo’s proposal involves demolishing four buildings at the back of the property and building a two-story building with 26 apartments. The remaining eight buildings would be converted into 14 one-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot apartments.
Gomes argued the concerns of existing residents are valid, but aren’t part of the commission’s decision on whether to approve a floating zone that would allow a multifamily residential development in what is now an industrial zone.
She said the project advances the town’s development goals by bringing new rentals and renovating properties in the corridor at the town line with Westbrook.
In their letter, the anonymous tenant disputed that the proposed development would be a more “welcoming and cohesive” character as the entryway into Clinton, as Gomes maintained when first presenting the concept in May.
“It’s a big old parking lot with Tyvek buildings. (60 car spaces!),” the letter said. “Nothing welcoming or cohesive about that.”
Commissioner Ellen Dahlgren said the proposal appears to improve the corridor and would provide some low-cost housing, but she continues to have major reservations about using floating zones.
Dahlgren said she thought it was a mistake to include them in the zoning regulations in the first place, when it allowed them in 2016 to pave the way for a CVS on Boston Post Road, which Commissioner Eddie Alberino said he still hears complaints about.
Dahlgren said the town is due to write a new Plan of Conservation and Development in a couple of years, and they may reconsider whether floating zones should still be allowed going forward.
“This would institute one more floating zone, making it that much more difficult to reevaluate the entire notion going forward,” she said.
Commissioner Bo Clark said approving this floating zone is essentially agreeing to multifamily housing anywhere in the industrial zone. He said that it opens speculation about certain developers benefiting from favoritism, warranted or not.
“In my opinion, these floating zones are just a dangerous thing for any town to have. I’d much rather see a zone change to something else that could incorporate this type of use,” Clark said. “This is the type of use that makes people say, ‘This is favoritism, the fix was in,’ because it leaves so much up to opinion.”
Commissioner Adam Moore said he’s not necessarily opposed to floating zones, and suggested the commissioners should have changed the regulations before this application.
“If we don’t want them, we should come up with new regulations, not bring it up in the middle of somebody’s application,” he said.
Gomes said Dattilo decided to propose a floating zone because it most closely fit what they were trying to accomplish. It would have been “messy” to try to amend the industrial zone standards to allow the development, and creating a new zone could be considered spot zoning – a fear the commission raised back in May, she said.
“Providing the commission with the discretion to first land [the floating zone], and then have to approve a special exception and site plan was the cleaner and more palatable approach to redeveloping the site without butchering your existing zoning regulations,” Gomes said.
The commission tabled a decision on the floating zone until its next meeting. If the floating zone is approved, the commission would then have to decide whether to approve the site plan for the development.