STONINGTON — After a second public session, the first phase of the town’s comprehensive rewrite of its zoning regulations is likely headed to a public hearing and a vote by the Planning & Zoning Commission on September 19.
Francis Gomes, Senior Project Manager with FHI studio, told an audience of 30 residents and property owners at a public meeting on Thursday that the focus of phase one is to clean up the regulations and organize the document so that it is effective, workable, and complies with state statutes.
“Once we finish phase one, we will move on to phase two, which will involve having much bigger discussions about what is allowed, how much should be allowed, where uses should [or should not] be allowed, and whether or not permit requirements should change,” he said.
He said that before proposing any changes, his group and the Planning and Zoning Commission had performed a line-by-line review of the zoning regulations – which date back to 1961 – and checked for consistency with the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, coastal resilience plan, affordable housing plan, as well as regional plans.
“We met on a monthly basis of virtual meetings that have been open to the public. And all the recordings of those meetings are posted on the town website. So we’ve tried to run a very transparent process,” said Gomes, who first presented the information in a virtual session on July 24.
At Thursday’s session, residents questioned new rules limiting the storage of recreation vehicles and boats, with some residents asking if the number should be calculated by acreage.
The rewrite also allows owners of non-conforming buildings damaged by a flood or storm to rebuild exactly as is without a special permit, and doubled the application filing time from 45 days to 90 days.
“If the owner doesn’t fill out the application in 90 days, he can still do the rebuild, he just has to go before the commission for a permit,” Gomes said. The owner may need to comply with FEMA and building codes, which could complicate the application process, Gomes said.
After a resident asked that the town consider waiving the cost of a zoning permit for reconstruction after a disaster, Gomes said, “We can look at the fee structure in phase two, we did not discuss fees or changing fees in phase one.”
A number of residents objected to the proposed elimination of “boarding and tourist homes” in the zoning update and said the several that existed served an important function.
“You need some boarding houses for the single people and the workers that come to town for a week. There are two up on Liberty Street… They’re not hurting anything where they are,” one resident said.
Gomes pointed out that new boarding houses were eliminated in commercial districts only and if they existed in residential zones, then they were considered non-conforming uses and could remain.
“We’ll take a look at these and see what districts they’re in and whether or not their non conforming uses are allowed by the regulations. If they’re already non conforming, we’re not really making any changes, they’ll just continue to be non compliant,” he said. “This is really a question of do you want new ones opened up.”
A resident said there needed to be flexibility in allowing housing to be built and that a boarding house could be another tool in the affordable housing “umbrella.”
The proposed regulations also address a number of other issues, including open space, accessory dwelling units, parking lots, and requirements for electric vehicle charging stations and loading docks.
Gomes said that adopting the phase one rewrite will allow the zoning regulations to be modified easily in the future because the document has been consolidated and formatted for ease of use.
“These regulations are organized and designed to allow us to get in there and make changes without disrupting everything. We can add districts, consolidate districts, move districts, add uses, remove uses, change required permits, increase requirements, decrease requirements – we now have a document that we know where we can make the changes,” he said.
He said that phase one was in place as a “solid foundation,” phase two could address bigger issues and “entertain additional revisions, amendments and changes.”
Matt Beaudoin, owner of Mystic Knotworks, told Gomes to expect conflicts in phase two given the town’s 400-year history and many nonconforming, noncompliant structures.
“If people think that what they’re used to is going to be taken away from them, you’re gonna get a lot of pushback” Beaudoin said.
Carlene Donnarummo, a resident, expressed concern about the possibility of changing numerous aspects of the zoning regulations during phase two.
Chuck Sheehan, commission member, said that phase one was about reformatting the document and bringing the regs into compliance with state statutes to protect the town from legal challenges. He said that phase two will be about “thoughtful discussion” with the public about specific issues.
Gomes said that in phase two he expected to schedule at least five public workshops that will focus on different zoning topics.
Resident Tracy Swain requested that the workshop times vary between afternoons and evenings to accommodate different work schedules.
Gomes said the phase two meetings will be posted on the town website.