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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

OPM advice sought on questions about incentive zone

As published in the Record Journal on Wednesday March 13, 2013

By Eric Heredia

Record-Journal staff

(203) 317-2243

WALLINGFORD - Corporation Counsel Janis Small will work with the state Office of Policy and Management’s legal department to address concerns raised by the Planning and Zoning Commission about the proposed Incentive Housing Zone regulations.

The zone would create special zoning regulations for developments on Hall Avenue and Quinnipiac, North Cherry, Meadow, Center and North Colony streets. The regulations allow the town to receive state funding while controlling the design of new developments. By adopting the zone, municipalities can receive up to $20,000 for pre-development studies and up to another $50,000 if at least 250 housing units are built in the zone.

The Incentive Housing Zone falls under an Office of Policy and Management program called Home Connecticut. The program, approved in 2007 bythe state legislature, would require 20 percent affordable housing. Its goal is to provide affordable housing for residents who otherwise wouldn’t be able to stay in Wallingford.

PZC Chairman Jim Seichter asked Small on Monday what would happen if Wallingford were to approve the zone, the state were to accept the application, but the town were to subsequently eliminate the zone. Small said the statute isn’t clear on the consequences, but they would most likely be financial.

“You would think in practical terms that other than ... looking for money back, they might not have an interest, but you can’t say that for sure,” she said, adding that a court order to keep the regulations in place is within the realm of possibility.

Small was asked about the potential of having the zone’s design and parking regulations approved by the PZC, and then having landowners apply for variances through the Zoning Board of Appeals.

“The concern is we’ve spent the time, we’ve crafted regulations, and then if it’s approved and someone comes in and looks for a variance,” Seichter said.

Small said that, in general, state law doesn’t prohibit people from getting variances from the regulations, but they cannot get a variance from a statutory requirement, such as minimum density.

“In talking to OPM about it, you know, raises an interesting point,” she said, recalling an idea raised by an OPM official. “If your regulations for the incentive zone is such that it’s not possible for somebody to actually use it, then why wouldn’t the variance be proper?”

She said the design standards in the drafts are traditionally open for variance applications. She said she assumed that the commission was making requirements that can be can be complied with.

“If you have that level ofcomfort, that’s a good starting point,” Small said.

PZC member James Fitzsimmons, who said he is concerned mostly with parking variances, asked about parcels that have already been granted a variance. Town Planner Kacie Costello asked if variances would carry over if parcels are combined into larger parcels, as happens when buildings are torn down.

Small said she would have to know what the variances are and decide on a case-by-case basis.

Costello asked Small if the commission could add language limiting the types of variances that could be approved. Small said the only thing zoning boards can prohibit are land uses not permitted in the zone.

Dimple Desai, community development director at OPM, said the legal department is looking into the interpretation of the state law and would work with Small to answer the PZC’s questions.

“She’s going to do her own research and come back with her own questions,” Desai said.

For the Incentive Housing Zone to move forward in Wallingford, the Planning and Zoning Commission must establish regulations. Then the Town Council must endorse them because the program involves accepting state funds. After that the amended regulations are sent to OPM, if OPM agrees with the regulations, the agency would give the town preliminary approval.

Then the regulations would be sent back to the PZC, which must hold a public hearing. Then the commission must approve the regulations one last time before sending a final draft back to OPM, at which point “they provide us with final approval,” Costello said.

Old Saybrook has already built 16 housing units through the program and Sharon is going through the permitting process for 12 units. Desai said that OPM has given final approval to five towns: Old Saybrook, East Lyme, Torrington, Sharon and New London. Westbrook and Watertown have gotten preliminary approval.

In other business Monday,the PZC:

-- approved a special permit for retail and restaurant at 1086 N. Colony Road.

-- approved a zoning text amendment allowing for 45foot-high signs on buildings in the IX and IV zones.

-- approved a special permit for M&W Repair to operate an auto repair shop at 71 S. Turnpike Road.

-- approved a special permit for Farms Country Club to build a deck to serve as an extension to its dining area at 180 Cheshire Road.

-- continued its public hearing on J&D Auto Body’s application for a special permit to extend its indoor storage and office space at 1224 Old Colony Road.

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