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Town Council endorses development plan

Published 3:25 pm, Wednesday, May 28, 2014

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  • Resident Andrea Sandor addresses the Town Council during a meeting Wednesday, May 21, 2014, at the New Canaan Nature Center, in New Canaan, Conn. Sandor was one of three residents who attended the meeting to ask the council to delay its vote on the 2014 Plan of Conservation and Development. Photo: Nelson Oliveira / New Canaan News
    Resident Andrea Sandor addresses the Town Council during a meeting Wednesday, May 21, 2014, at the New Canaan Nature Center, in New Canaan, Conn. Sandor was one of three residents who attended the meeting to ask the council to delay its vote on the 2014 Plan of Conservation and Development. Photo: Nelson Oliveira

 

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Discussion about what a 10-year development plan would mean for New Canaan has come down to one issue, Town Council member Steve Karl said at a recent meeting.

"It's all about protecting the character of New Canaan," he said at the May 21 Town Council meeting. "At the end of the day, that's what we're trying to do here. Even folks who don't agree with the content of this document still have the idea that they want to preserve New Canaan's character."

Despite some opposition from three residents who wanted the vote delayed, the Town Council endorsed the 2014 Plan of Conservation and Development, a state-mandated document that will guide growth and development in New Canaan for the next 10 years.

Laszlo Papp, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, and Town Planner Steve Kleppin both said the goal of the plan is to preserve the village character of New Canaan.

The commission will conduct a public hearing on the document on June 3, when it may also vote to adopt the plan.

At the May 21 meeting, resident Andrea Sandor asked the Town Council to postpone its endorsement vote, saying the document "has not been properly vetted" and was being rushed for adoption.

The deadline to adopt the plan was postponed to July 2015, but the commission has been working on editing the plan since February 2013, according to Papp.

Sandor said she was worried that "the liberal language" in the POCD would allow developers to seek permits for multi-story buildings.

The document's proposed plans for downtown, for instance, 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.

"The deliberately vague language that's been added to the Plan of Conservation and Development to allow for a variety of things to be put in actually increases the type of development that can be allowed in New Canaan," Sandor told the council. "One example would be that if the P&Z votes against a 10-story building to be built downtown, could (developers) potentially sue the P&Z because it wasn't inconsistent with the more liberal language in the plan?"

Kleppin said no, adding that the document is advisory only.

"The commission has broad powers on whether they want to enact a regulation or not," he said. "They're not bound by it. Just because the POCD says `consider higher density,' they don't have to approve a new regulation because of that. They have the ability to determine what they feel is appropriate and not appropriate."

Kleppin said the plan serves the Planning and Zoning Commission as a road map "in an advisory capacity."

Resident Terry Spring said she also thought the town is moving too quickly to adopt the document.

"I don't see why we have to rush with this. We have a whole additional year," she said.

Papp said postponing the adoption of the plan would "damage the planning process" and cause more delay in updating the zoning districts, which he noted are more than 60 years old.

"Those who want to delay any of this work want to hand over the initiative to property owners or developers," Papp told the council. "We believe it's in the town's interest that we have a proactive role."

Sandor said the 60-year-old zoning districts "are the reason why the town looks so nice."

Papp noted that Sandor has not been to any public hearings on the POCD.

"I fully sympathize with Ms. Sandor," he said. "Of course she has questions. We've had 14 meetings since February of last year, and she didn't attend any one. And therefore, she is obviously uninformed."

Sandor, who was asked to stop talking several times during the meeting, said she attended Town Council subcommittee meetings regarding the POCD and has been sending Kleppin and Papp questions by email.

Spring questioned whether the plan could somehow turn against the town if developers take advantage of the broad language in the POCD. "I think we're being brainwashed a little bit by hearing over and over again, `this is only advisory, it doesn't really matter,'" she said.

Kleppin said the commission still will have final say when an unwelcome high-density project is proposed, but its only requirement is to be consistent with what's suggested in the plan.

"When a developer or the town comes forward and tries to pursue one of these projects ... if it ends up resulting in a regulation change, it must be consistent with the plan," he said. "If the commission makes regulation changes, it must be consistent with the plan."

He noted that the commission does not plan to expand downtown, but simply manage growth in the area.

The POCD was last updated in 2003. The new 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 is not required to vote on the implementation part of the document. Several Town Council members said they would like to see an implementation committee formed after the plan is adopted.

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