Some residents and merchants are up in arms about proposed zoning regulations that would change ... nothing.
"At this point there isn't really a plan for it," Steve Kleppin, the town planner said, regarding the creation of a new `Business D' zone on the western edge of downtown New Canaan. "We put placeholder regulations which are basically the same. We took the existing B regulations and removed a few of the uses."
Kleppin made the proposal at the July 23 Planning & Zoning Commission meeting.
Currently there are three types of business zones: Zone C is for office buildings; Zone B is for industrial businesses; and Zone A is for basically all other businesses that aren't retail. Zone C is confined to a very small area around Cherry and Locust streets. There is a small amount of Zone B in the eastern periphery of downtown -- where Hoyt Livery and the New Canaan Auto Repair are located -- and a small parcel west of downtown, where Food Emporium and Weed and Duryea are located.
"Originally, those two outlying areas were industrial areas, but that's totally changed at this point," P&Z Chairman Laszlo Papp said, explaining that since Weed and Duryea moved its lumber business out of New Canaan, there is virtually nothing that could be described as `industrial' on either side of town. Additionally, the size of the parcels are much larger in the west side of Zone B than those in the east portion. "There's no reason to have them in the same zoning district, that's why we're planning on separating them."
Papp said after they're separated, the town will perform some studies and talk to local residents and businesses about what changes to the code could be made for Zone D.
The move is not without precedent. Kleppin attempted to create a Zone D in 2009. At the time, the zone would have allowed for more development and for more concentrated use of the space. The change never came to be, as residents and merchants resisted it on several grounds. Minutes from the March, 2009 P&Z Commission meeting record that 18 people spoke during the public comments section that night, many in opposition to the move, though several in favor of it.
Some residents wonder why Kleppin wants to change the zoning classification again, if there is no other motive to change the code.
"It's putting the cart before the horse, you're doing it backwards," Terry Spring, a merchant in the western part of Zone B and a former member of the Town Council and Board of Selectmen. "You don't create a zone and then say, `We'll see what happens.'"
Spring worries that the code will be changed without a proper hearing in public.
"It helps having been in government, because you know how things work and you know the process. Once you have a zone, you can do text amendments and not notify the public. Things can change like lightning in zoning," she said.
The hearings on simply changing the area to be called Zone D, without code changes, will likely require discussion at two more P&Z meetings, Papp said, eyeing the September meeting as the time that would change.
"The idea is to separate it and next year, in the spring, do a neighborhood planning program and start off with Zone D," Kleppin said. "We'll have a number of public hearings and show on a visual basis what we'd like to see in that area."
He offered some general goals.
"I hope we'd take advantage of the proximity to the train station to have some housing available. We want to make it more walkable. There are sidewalks, but they're but not inviting like Elm or Main Street. We know the character of downtown needs to be protected, and we're not trying to add a whole new area of retail shops."
That last point, increasing the downtown area, was a main concern for Spring, a managing member of Cody Real Estate, located in the potential Zone D.
"What's unique about us is our town center, and I would hate to lose that from sprawl, by sprawling the retail center out further and further," she said. "We have a stable population and we have a great deal of trouble supporting our retail stores as it is. Many of them have gone over to restaurants because our merchants struggle."
Other's say there must be room for development and growth in New Canaan. Since businesses would have to conform to rules that are now out-of-date, it would be difficult for them to grow, said Scott Hobbs, co-owner of Hobbs, Incorporated, a building firm located in the would-be Zone D.
"Therefore, what you see there now is from now until eternity, because nothing can change its use. It's potentially a loss of opportunity for the town, and it means there's not an incentive for landlords to improve something," he said.
Hobbs also said that by his count, 11 or 12 of the 14 buildings in the would-be Zone D are currently not in compliance to the code, and were grandfathered in when the code was last updated in 2005.
For others, it's simply too soon to have a strong opinion.
"I think it's too early for me to say if there would be a change (for business in town)," Tucker Murphy, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, said. "If it's in an effort to be able to look more at particular areas and decide if there are better uses for them, that would make sense."
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