Essex Zoning Proposal Faces Growing Opposition

Signs opposing a proposed Bokum Center Development District have appeared along Route 153 in Essex (CT Examiner).


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ESSEX — Resistance to a town-proposed zoning district that would permit mixed-use development is growing, marked by signs along Route 153 near Bokum Center and a sizable crowd opposing the application during a Tuesday Planning and Zoning hearing. 

The proposed district, called a “node,” would cover about 70 properties along Route 153 that was delineated as “Bokum Center Development District” in the town’s 2015 Plan of Conservation and Development, or POCD, a planning document that towns are required to update every 10 years. 

At the hearing, town planning and zoning consultant John Guszkowski said the POCD identified five development nodes that included three village centers — Essex, Centerbrook and Ivoryton — as well as the Route 9 Gateway, which was approved in 2021, and Bokum Center. 

“This text amendment is … basically what we would call enabling legislation. It creates the potential for opportunity to develop properties in the immediate proximity of Bokum Corner, which again is the corner of Bokum Road, Plains Road, and Westbrook Road, 153 and 604, which is an established commercial, business and employment center,” he said. “It creates the opportunity for developers to come up with creative proposals for new developments there, whether it’s multifamily development, whether it’s commercial, retail, entertainment, athletic, or some mix of any of those things.”

Currently, there are five different zoning districts within a 200-foot radius of where Bokum, Westbrook and Plains roads meet, each with their own set of rules and uses. The regulation change, Guszkowski said, would create a unified development approach.

He said property owners could suggest ideas exceeding the underlying zone’s limits and, if approved, they could proceed to apply for a special permit for the project.

“This process would allow the commission to consider whether the proposal was in the best interest of the town, whether it would bring positive and vibrant development to the community, and not detract from the community’s public health, safety and welfare,” he said. 

The text amendment, he argued, would grant the commission “an unbelievable amount of latitude and oversight” to review, reject, change or approve the proposal, and that there would be no fewer than two additional public hearings for each proposal. 

But hearing attendees called the text amendment “unconstitutional” and encouraged caution. 

Resident Greg Ellis noted that the area around Bokum Center sits on an aquifer and has sanitation issues due to a thick layer of clay running under many of the properties. 

“The point is the cart is before the horse without the town doing a hydrology study of the area with concerns about water, the aquifer and the ability of higher density being able to handle sanitation,” Ellis said.

Guszkowski responded that high groundwater and aquifer issues are known in the area but are not reasons enough to halt proceeding with the zoning proposal, since any project would need to conform to public health and safety regulations concerning wastewater, stormwater and the aquifer.

But Ellis said caution was warranted, arguing that the town was “backhandedly” encouraging developers to prove there’s no high water or aquifer problems in areas already known to have issues that preclude high-density development. 

Guszkowski, however, argued that the town was encouraging developers to present their ideas if they believe they can overcome inherent natural challenges on a particular property.

Robert Vitari, who owns several properties in the proposed district, called the text amendment an “unconstitutional power grab” tailored to one underdeveloped property at 125 Westbrook Road, known as Bokum Center, which sold on Dec. 5 for $1.87 million. 

“What a coincidence. And then less than 30 days later, again organically, right out of the sky falls this brand new thing called a node that is a dream come true to any new owner of a freshly purchased investment. The new owner must be either omniscient or really lucky to have this kind of hidden text silently in the pipeline,” he said.

Vitari maintained that the process paralleled a previous text amendment proposed by Greylock Properties last year, claiming that the town was “colluding secretly with one developer behind closed doors.”

Resident Alan Field told the commission that the amendment was providing inappropriate opportunities for high-density development which would also not meet the town’s housing needs. 

Carey Duques, Essex’s land use official, said the town’s proposal for a zoning text amendment was partly the outcome of a similar but rejected amendment proposed by a developer to change a rural residential district in a different area.

“The Planning and Zoning Commission at the time looked at it seriously, held many public hearings and decided that they would like to actually craft their own text amendment. … This is not something that they just did overnight, or over the past few months; this is something that’s been in the works for several years,” she said. 

The commission continued the public hearing to April.