STONINGTON — Phase two of the town’s zoning revision kicked off with a virtual meeting Wednesday night, launching what could be a more contentious rewriting of rules governing everything from parking to affordable housing and allowed uses in residential, commercial, industrial and mixed-use neighborhoods.
Clifton Iler, the town planner, told the commission that from a staff perspective, a review of permitting would be key to the revisions, especially for efficiency in processing zoning applications.
“The permit types are going to be a very key part of this discussion because the prototypes that we have and the multitude of uses creates significant backlogs or difficulties from a staffing perspective to process all these applications. Either consolidating the users themselves, and/or changing the application or permit type will definitely help from a staff perspective,” he said.
Iler also recommended a different regulatory style that would allow property owners more flexibility and adaptability, especially with climate change.
“One of the things I’d like to explore as part of this is moving to more flexible, foreign-based code style bulk requirements, which are based more off percentages and ratios rather than hard and fast numbers,” he said. “The example I like to use is, the difference between 95 and 100 feet of frontage is barely noticeable to the naked eye, so our rules and regulations shouldn’t reflect that.”
Iler told the committee that as shoreline communities comply with FEMA regulations, which often require raising structures above the base flood elevation level, the town needs to have flexibility in its zoning regulations to allow homeowners to build and adapt over time.
Outlining the process
The meeting focused mainly on how to break down a list of broad topics — sustainability, housing, commercial-industrial uses, site design, permitting — into five buckets of town regulations that would then be analyzed, updated, workshopped with the public, and, ultimately, prepared for Planning and Zoning Commission approval in January 2025.
Mystic resident Maggie Favretti, co-founder of the Alliance for the Mystic River Watershed, advised the commission during a key discussion on how to order the topics, that sustainability, resilience and environmental protection was one “bucket” that affected all the other issues.
And Vice chair Ryan Deasy said that starting off with environment issues could potentially engage the public in the revisions in a positive way and help them gain understanding of the process.
“So that when we get to the tougher topics, they have confidence in the process that we’re using, in the engagement that we’re having with the public. To understand that we’re taking their input and we’re incorporating it,” Deasy said.
Consultant Francisco Gomes, senior project manager with FHI studio, said that Phase Two will include a community engagement campaign, an online survey and several focus group workshops.
Phase One — considered the less controversial of the two phases — focused on correcting errors and omissions as well as inconsistencies in formatting and terminology, a process that cut the regulations from 348 pages to 199.
Phase Two will touch on potentially “hot button” topics including prohibited and permitted uses in residential, commercial, industrial and mixed use zones, as well as parking.
The topics covered in Phase two include:
- Allowed uses and permit requirements
- Bulk, area and height regulations
- Residential zoning review
- Parking regulations
- Sign regulations
- Commercial, industrial and mixed-use zoning review and design guidelines
- Inland wetlands, aquifer protection, MS4 compliance, flood plain regulations and coastal resilience
- Zoning map atlas updates
Gomes advised the committee that the regulations needed to strike a balance between protecting the consistency of development and neighborhoods so that if a new structure is being built or rebuilt, it isn’t radically different from the buildings around it, especially in coastal and flood zones.
“We have to allow for properties to conform with what’s required by FEMA or any other flood zone type requirement… And right now, I would imagine that would be handled on a kind of a case by case basis, potentially through a variance. But we want to have a more structured mechanism for allowing development or redevelopment to occur and ensure that we’re prescribing something that’s going to strike that balance,” said Gomes.
He said the town was missing “middle housing,” or midsize dwellings like townhouses, duplexes and small apartment buildings, which will require zoning permission for “a different kind of housing.”
Iler emphasized an educational approach to housing, especially affordable housing. But, he said it was important not to start off Phase Two with the topic of housing, especially short term rentals and affordable housing, because they were a divisive issue in the community.
He said that short term rentals will not be in the scope of Phase Two.
“The full intent from a staff perspective is to treat short term rentals as a completely siloed effort outside of Phase Two,” said Iler. “STRs are such a big topic in Stonington. I’m worried that the outcome could derail the process. We need to devote a separate section to STRs.”
For Phase Two, Gomes recommended a 16-month process, from October 2023 through January 2025, broken down into five 3-month work cycles, each involving a line-by-line review.
“We would provide you with examples on how how we think it could be handled, potentially how other regulations other communities handle these items, and give you our expert opinion on or options for how we could proceed” he said.
Over the course of the revisions, FHI would conduct in-person, public workshops that would include bring the firm’s “discovery” and options for changes, ask for public input and feedback, and then draft the amendments.
Gomes recommended a series of public hearings — one for each unit — rather than combining the units into one hearing at the end of 16 months. He suggested that for each unit, the commission could make a motion to advance the approved items and agree to let other items go
“It’s a mechanism to filter things, to make a commitment and move on,” Gomes said.
Iler questioned the legality of a commission making recommendations to itself rather than a higher body, and that he would check with the town attorney.
Later in the meeting Gomes said a 4-month schedule per unit would be more comfortable for his team — and more expensive. “We do have a $10,000 contingency,” he said
As for Phase One, Gomes said the town has yet to receive an official response from the Department of Energy and Environmental Projection on the zoning changes. He said a number of corrections were in the process of being made.
The public hearing for Phase One will continue on Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Board of Education building at 40 Field St., Pawcatuck.