Residents Ask P&Z to Take Control of Deadlines for Exit 56 Development

With PermissionResidents are frustrated by developers’ last-minute revisions for proposals to extend deadlines for Planned Development Districts (PDDs). Property owners at Exit 56 submitted their third revision for zoning regulations for PDDs like the 44-acre plan at Exit 56, which once included Costco.

Resident Lauren Brown said last-minute changes to the proposal make it difficult for residents to respond. “We as the public spend time researching and preparing our remarks and every time we come in, something new is here,” Brown said at Thursday’s public hearing.

About 15 people attended the second session of the public hearing conducted by the Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission. The issue was whether developers should have more than the current two-year timeframe to submit site plans after a PDD and master plan are approved. Last-minute revisions were submitted at both hearings.

The latest proposed revision asks for a five-year timeframe, including extensions, to submit site plans for any large PDD.

Diana Stricker PhotoSpeaking to the commissioners, Brown (pictured) said, “I ask you simply to deny this application … just so we don’t have to keep playing these games, so to speak, and so that you can take control of the process.”  She suggested the P&Z members “step back and take a fresh look and have the ideas come from the commission.”

Diane W. Whitney, a land-use attorney with Pullman & Comley LLC in Hartford, represents Charles E. Weber Jr. and Al Secondino and their 595 Corporate Circle corporation, owners of property at Exit 56.

“This is now I think the third version of this change I’d like you to consider,” Whitney told the commission as she handed copies of the new proposal to the public Thursday night. “The point of this is to have a little more flexibility for the timeframe in which a site plan has to be submitted to complete a PDD.”

Diana Stricker PhotoWhitney (pictured) said the current timeframe is inadequate for large master plans.

“I tried to include in this new language some of the issues that were brought up the last time I was here,” Whitney said.  She apologized for the belated revisions, but said an emergency prevented her from filing sooner.

Exit 56 Requests

The zoning regulation change was requested by Weber and Secondino, through their 595 Corporate Circle corporation. The two developers own a 16.5-acre parcel at 569 E. Main St. where six retail buildings were proposed as part of the 44-acre PDD that included other small properties.

The Costco warehouse would have been built on an adjacent 22.3 acre site at 573 East Main St. owned by Wayne Cooke and the Cooke family corporations. Weber and Secondino had an option to buy the Cooke property, an option that expired as of September 29, 2017, according to town land records for Orchard Hill Partners. 

The PDD and master plan were approved by P&Z by a 3-2 vote in July 2015.  Plans were then submitted to the Inland Wetlands Commission (IWC) where lengthy hearings were held. The project would have eventually gone to P&Z for site-plan consideration if a Wetlands permit had been approved. Costco withdrew its IWC application in April 2016 after it became apparent that it would be denied. Costco later pulled out of the project.

Site plans were never submitted to P&Z, and the two-year deadline would have expired last July but the P&Z voted 3-2 to grant a one-year extension. No appeal was taken. Zoning regulations neither allow nor prohibit extensions for PDD site plans.

The initial proposal that triggered a public hearing Feb. 15 asked for an unspecified number of time extensions at the commission’s discretion. Prior to the February hearing, Whitney submitted a revised version that would give developers five years to submit site plans, with the possibility of a one-year extension.

At the March 1 hearing, Whitney and the developers asked that site plans be submitted and approved within three years of master plan adoption, instead of the current two years. They also requested a provision for two one-year extensions up to a total of five years.

Three years will be up in July for the Exit 56 PDD, unless any extensions are granted. The project will have to obtain IWC approval before any site plans can be submitted to P&Z.

“A developer, particularly a developer who has spent a whole lot of money on a very complex master plan has every incentive to go forward as quickly as possible, so it is unlikely that someone is going to simply sit on an approved plan and do nothing,” Whitney said.

Residents Want Clarity

Diana Stricker PhotoPeter Henschel (pictured), a member of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) said the current PDD regulations are “confusing and lack clarity.”

For example, the regulations say site plans must be “submitted” in two years, but later say “approved” in two years.

“I hope that the commission will take this opportunity to look at the regulations as a whole before making modifications that may further any confusion,” he said.

Henschel said current language says that site plans may be submitted in stages, but it does not clarify if all site plans must be submitted and approved in the two-year timeframe.  He suggested several issues be addressed, including an overall step-by-step timeframe, and the potential phasing of large PDDs in master plans and site plans.

Henschel suggested keeping the two-year timeframe to submit site plans, but adding one 1-year extension if there is good cause.

Janet Riesman, who owns property at Exit 56 near the PDD, said she went to the Planning and Zoning office late Thursday morning and there was no new proposal in the file.

“I feel like I’m dealing with a moving target,” Riesman said in regard to the last-minute revisions.

She agreed with Henschel regarding clarity in the regulations.  “I urge the commission to take his suggestions to heart,” she said.

Reisman said she doesn’t think that site plans for Exit 56 “will look anything like the master plan approved in 2015.” She said rather than asking for an extension, “Developers who are unable to match their initial master plans to their proposed site plans should let the PDD expire and re-apply.”

Diana Stricker PhotoLocal environmentalist Bill Horne (pictured) said his prepared statement was directed at the proposal from the previous hearing, not the one submitted Thursday. However, he adapted his comments to apply to the new revision when he spoke to the commission.

Horne said zoning regulations require PDDs to have a harmonious design consistent with the character of the town and the long-range improvement of the neighborhood.  He said the timely completion of a project is important for the harmonious impact on the neighborhood.

Horne said setting deadlines for specific milestones for a PDD allows the commission to have oversight of whether the development is progressing, or whether there are serious problems.

“I ask that the commission deny the application tonight,” Horne said. “And if you believe it’s appropriate to relax strict requirements on a deadline for achieving approval of the site plan, then you step back and re-take responsibility for crafting something which appropriately balances the interests of the developer in having some flexibility … with the interests of the community.”

Tim Snider, a long-time resident of Branford, asked the commissioners to be careful as they make any decisions.

“I don’t know how more roads and more stores at Exit 56 are going to help us.  I do know that the traffic we have there now is at max,” Snider said.

More Information

Town Planner Harry Smith presented information from other communities in regard to zoning regulations for PDDs. “They run a little bit of a gamut,” he said, but most include time extensions or longer timeframes.

Smith said all new information and e-mails from residents were included in the packet the commissioners received Thursday.

After about an hour, Chuck Andres, who chairs the P&Z, asked residents if they wanted the hearing to remain open for another two weeks, but they agreed that the hearing could be closed.

Andres asked the commissioners to read all the information and prepare for a discussion at the March 15 meeting, which will be held at Fire Headquarters. It is not known if a straw poll will be taken or if commissioners will vote at that time. If the P&Z decides to make changes to other parts of the PDD regulations, it would take longer.

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