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Residents weigh in on town's development plan

Updated 2:31 pm, Monday, March 17, 2014
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Residents urged the Planning and Zoning Commission to preserve New Canaan's village character during a public hearing March 5 on the 2014 Plan of Conservation and Development.

Resident Terry Spring told the commission she was concerned the plan wouldn't protect what she called an "open downtown" in New Canaan.

"I think we should look closely at whether we should encourage additional building sites, extend Retail A to other locations and create building density, which really (do) not preserve the characteristic feel of our community," Spring said. "I think it's better to think proactively than to act proactively if you're a zoning commission faced with developmental pressures. New development is not always a need."

The POCD is a state-mandated document meant to guide growth and development in New Canaan over the next 10 years. A required public hearing on the plan likely will take place in May, but the commission decided to conduct last week's session to get further feedback from residents.

The document's proposed plans for downtown include considering the creation of a new zoning district on the west side of the business area, expanding parking, encouraging mixed uses (residential and business) in certain areas and considering increasing the allowed limits on building height.

Another resident concerned about the plans involving downtown was Keith Simpson.

"I do hope that pedestrian circulation will be a major priority because people do like to get rid of their cars as soon as they can in town and walk," he said.

Simpson said he often hears from visitors that downtown New Canaan is "so walkable friendly and not oversized," which is something he said people cannot find in many neighboring towns.

In an opinion piece written for the New Canaan News in February, Town Planner Steve Kleppin said the commission does not plan to expand downtown.

"This is simply not true," he wrote. "While Main, Elm and Forest streets are the envy of most of our surrounding communities, other areas of downtown have not been as carefully planned or managed. Why can't these other areas of downtown be as attractive and inviting to pedestrians?"

Kleppin said the POCD would simply manage growth in the area.

"We are ever mindful that increased growth, if not carefully planned and managed, can have undesired consequences," he wrote. "We also feel that enhancements to the periphery of downtown will benefit the entire town and will not compete or detract from the uniqueness of Main and Elm."

The document includes suggestions on how to maintain and enhance the character of downtown.

The POCD was last updated in 2003. The 2014 plan is broken down into two documents: "Strategic Element" deals mostly with "big picture" strategies, while "Implementation Element" tackles "specific steps intended to help implement the overall strategies," according to the town's website.

The Planning and Zoning Commission hopes the implementation portion of the document will be reviewed and updated every year and will be amended as new tasks are identified. Though the POCD is mandated by the state, the town is not required to carry out the recommendations.

Resident Kip Farrell, author of the book "Thank You New Canaan," asked the commission to make an effort to preserve and protect historic barns in New Canaan. Farrell said she's been researching information about the town's barns for more than 20 years.

"I'm deeply interested in the barns that contribute so greatly to the character of New Canaan. Some of the barns still standing are over 300 years old," she said.

However, barns are disappearing quickly, according to Farrell. Since she began her research, she said 30 barns have been demolished.

"What must be recognized now is that our barns are vanishing at an alarming rate. Many have been demolished to make way for the oversized homes that are so popular with the developers and builders," she said. "With each barn that is destroyed, another piece of our history disappears."

Farrell said removing the barns does a disservice to New Canaan.

"Once these historical structures are gone, we can't bring them back," Farrell said. "Can you imagine our winding roads lying with large mansions, but no evidence of our early settlers and their agricultural and colonial history?"

Other issues raised during the public hearing include the post office and the train stations.

Resident Bill Sessions asked the commission to consider getting involved with the post office relocation.

"The post office is an institution in most towns, and particularly in this town," Sessions said. "What's happening is tragic for all of us. I hope this plan will have some mention of this important resource in our town."

The New Canaan post office recently moved out of its longtime Pine Street site to a temporary location on Main Street.

Resident George Cody, who said he was afraid the proposed new zoning district would create "retail sprawl," noted that the commission has made efforts in the past to limit large-scale retail development "that would detract from the ambience and viability of the village center."

"This concern remains," he said. "And any language creating a special zone should be guided by this principal, that the viability of the village concept should be preserved."

In his opinion piece, Kleppin defended the plan.

"Where New Canaan was once an agricultural community, it is now an affluent suburban community connected to several major economic engines through mass transit. Since change will continue to occur, wouldn't it be better to be proactive and outline how we would like that change to occur, as opposed to reacting to development proposals as they are presented to us?" Kleppin wrote.

The draft plan is available at www.newcanaan.info.

noliveira@bcnnew.com, 203-330-6582, @olivnelson