Groton City Planning and Zoning Withdraws Zoning Proposal in the Face of Public Opposition

Bridge Street, Groton City (CT Examiner)


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GROTON CITY — After fielding weeks of community opposition, the Planning and Zoning Commission voted Wednesday night to withdraw a proposal for zoning changes along city’s gateway corridor that would have allowed the construction of buildings up to six stories.

The proposed General Commercial & Residential zone would have allowed residential and multi-use development along portions of Bridge St., North St., and upper Thames St. – routes that are close to I-95 on/off ramps. 

The new regulations would have allowed buildings up to four stories with site plan approval and up to six stories with special permit approval. Currently the regulations allow only two dwelling units per parcel, according to Leslie Creane, City Planner, in the Dec. 12, 2023 public hearing minutes. The application also included more relaxed parking requirements under certain conditions. 

During public comment Wednesday night, Presila Gjonaj, owner of a commercial property at 150 Bridge St., said she wanted to see mixed-use buildings along Bridge St. and was in favor of the application. She said she understood the concerns of the public that a developer could build six story buildings, but said that it was important to trust the city’s special permit process. 

Speaking in opposition, resident Michael Boucher told the commission that the zoning changes were “developer-pushed,” which he said was similar to a previously proposed – and twice rejected – development at Five Corners. “We’re creating a ‘fit’ for a development and nobody knows what’s happening behind the scenes,” he said. 

Boucher also said that commissioners Jason Rusk, who also sits on the Economic Development Commission, and Robert Boris, whose family owns property further down on Thames St., should recuse themselves from the vote on the amendment. 

Neither Rusk nor Boris offered to recuse themselves during the meeting.

Portia Bordelon, a town council member who spoke as a resident, said that while she supports  economic development, it was essential to bring in “proper, feasible, environmentally friendly development that fits the tapestry of our community and the future of our generation” – which she said included limiting building heights to four stories and listening to the city residents. 

“I’m all for economic development. I’m all for it. And it should have been done 40 years ago. As the person who’s lived here for 44 years, I’m embarrassed and disgusted at the look and the quality of Thames Street and the lack of development in this town, so it’s not to be against something because I’m against development,” she said. “I urge this body to go back to the drawing board and make it right. It’s a great idea to develop it but you have to make sure it’s proper and fix random things just thrown in there [that] in no way benefits our community.” 

Bordelon called for Rusk to recuse himself because of his dual role on two boards. She also addressed board chair Paul Kunkemuoeller, and said, “I’m disgusted by your rudeness and the way as a chair that you run your meetings and treat people with no dignity or respect.”

Mark Oefinger, who lives on Bridge St., told the commission that its communication with the public about the proposal had been poor – including a lack of visuals showing what a six-story building would look like in the neighborhood – which had heightened public concerns and eroded trust in the process. 

“My recommendation is still that you deny the application without prejudice and start over and start with calling a meeting with the residents in the general area to kind of lay out what it is you’re trying to accomplish, I’m in favor of that,” he said. “… Every time we have a public hearing the concerns seem to be increasing because of not so much the proposal but how things are not being addressed.” 

Following closure of the public hearing, commission members discussed recommendations in the 2019 Thames Street study to revitalize the area. 

“The report says revitalizing and creating a more active Thames Street is dependent on more foot traffic. Residential growth is vital. It should be a priority to create denser housing on upper Thames Street  and Bridge Street to support more households and associated foot traffic,” said commissioner Robert Boris. “We ought to add input from the community… into the proposal and do an updated application – that seems to be a reasonable approach to me.” 

Boris said that the commission needed to consider the needs of the entire city – not just the “few activists,” whom he said had written emails and given presentations to the commission.

“They’re important as well, but there is a larger context here and in that larger context, I think there’s the emphasis on why we’re delivering this – we were trying to figure out a way to create some growth and to incentivize local developers or national developers to invest in our community to help with the housing crisis that is statewide,” he said. “…I appreciate everybody’s dialogue, even the activists that come out are part of it, but just remember, there’s a whole city out there and there’s a lot of people, a lot of interest, we need to consider.”

Commissioner Susan Bergeron said building apartments in Groton City will fulfill the cycle of needs of both young workers at Electric Boat and retirees.  

“EB may be moving into these apartments right now but as they get older and start having families, they’re going to start looking for houses because they like it here. And those people who are looking for houses are going to help us retirees who are looking for apartments, so it’s going to be a continuous circle,” she said. 

Commissioner Rusk said that there had been “substantive feedback” from the public that “should have been taken on board” in the process. 

“My recommendation would be that we would take a step back… There are a lot of fine points here in the proposed amendment, you don’t necessarily have to throw them all out the window,” Rusk said. 

After a motion was made to withdraw the application, Boris said he was concerned it would send a negative message to the community. He urged the commission to make a commitment to rewriting the proposal and starting the process again. 

“Unfortunately, without any commitment to have this process relaunched in a better way, it sends a really shitty message to the community that no one’s really interested in equity and inclusion or creating opportunity and dealing with any of these issues here,” he said.

Boris emphasized the importance of the issue and said the commission needed to commit up front to creating a better proposal that can be adopted in a reasonable length of time, “with the appropriate public hearings involved, with the appropriate involvement with the community, but something that puts our feet to the fire to actually do something involve people and not just ignore it.”

After further discussion, the commission voted unanimously to withdraw the application and to immediately begin revising the proposal.

Editor’s note: In a previous version of this story, quotes said by Commissioner Robert Boris were misattributed to Commissioner Terry Rice. This story had been updated.