Clinton — A developer’s plan to build a complex of 40 one-bedroom apartments — with 10 percent affordable units — on a motel property located in an industrial zone was unanimously rejected by the Planning and Zoning Commission on Monday night.
Despite at least one commissioner commenting that the Westbrook-based Dattilo Group’s proposal looked like an improvement for the motel, known as A Victorian Village Inn, at 345 E. Main Street, the commission was overwhelmingly against expanding housing they said is already out of place in an industrial zone.
Commissioner Ellen Dahlgren said her issue was with Dattilo Group’s proposal to put a floating zone on the property, which would allow them to build their apartment complex despite the motel being a non-conforming use on an industrial-zoned property.
“These folks could be planning to build the Taj Mahal there or some landmark, it has nothing to do with the specific proposal. In fact, the proposal sounds like an improvement over what’s there,” Dahlgren said. “But the use of this floating zone is something that I just think of as a bad component of our regulations.”
Dahlgren said the floating zones “undermine the predictability” of zoning, which is meant to let people make decisions about where to buy, sell or develop property. She said they should be removed from the town’s zoning regulations, and from the Plan of Conservation and Development when that comes up for review in 2025.
Commissioner Bo Clark said the town’s regulations don’t allow the enlargement of “non-conforming” uses like the motel – which was built on the site but later disallowed by zoning changes. The 1955 motel was built before the town set up the “I-2” industrial zone, which doesn’t allow residential development.
“If we adopt this and land [the floating zone] on this particular site, we’d be creating a mechanism to circumvent our own regulations,” Clark said.
Clark also said the proposed floating zone would allow too much density – technically allowing up to 54 units of any size on the 1.8 acre site, despite the developers saying they planned to build 40.
He said that would allow up to 75 percent of the lot to be covered with buildings, while the town doesn’t allow more than 30 percent in its residential zones. It’s particularly a concern for that environmentally sensitive area, he said.
“Should a septic system fail, and no onsite solution can be found, it’s incumbent on the town to find a solution to that,” Clark said.
Commissioner Martin Jaffe said he wasn’t personally opposed to floating zones as a concept, but said there were problems with Dattilo’s proposed zone. Part of their pitch was that four units – 10 percent of the development – would be designated “affordable,” he said.
Including some affordable housing in a multifamily development can be attractive to towns like Clinton that fall under the state’s 8-30g affordable housing law, which allows developers to build housing while overriding many local zoning regulations if 30 percent of the development is deed-restricted as “affordable.”
Jaffe said the 10 percent set-aside falls well short of the state law aspiring for 30 percent, and it wouldn’t bring the town closer to having 10 percent of all its housing stock restricted as “affordable,” which would exempt the town from 8-30g. The town is at 2.8 percent according to the state’s latest count.
Residents of the motel, who live on the site, said it was one of the only places in town that was affordable for laborers and people on fixed incomes, and feared being pushed out and being unable to afford the new rents – even with Dattilo saying they would designate four apartments as “affordable.”
Jaffe said that 8-30g doesn’t allow developers to bypass zoning to build housing in an industrial zoned-property like 345 E. Main St. And in this case, it would be putting more people near “tens of thousands of gallons of explosive propane gas” next door, he said.
“Certainly the policy of discouraging lower-income, affordable housing within industrial areas is a sound policy,” Jaffe said.