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Sunday, March 24, 2013

FROM WALLINGFORD - Terminal timidity; “The incentive housing zone is near death”

As published in the Record Journal Sunday March 24, 2013

From the Editorial Pages of the Record Journal, as written by Mike Brodinsky host of public access show “Citizen Mike”

The incentive housing zone is near death. When the end comes, the cause of death will be terminal timidity.

The IHZ was once the best plan to revitalize the area of downtown Wallingford near the railroad station. The plan had the potential to entice developers to invest substantial cash downtown, because the IHZ would have allowed more residential and commercial space than would have been otherwise permitted under existing zoning.

The town would have been able to dictate the appearance of any new development by imposing design standards, which are possible only in an incentive housing zone. New projects, therefore, would have looked spiffy and appropriate. We’d have gotten more taxes, too. This seemed like a win-win situation. But it’s not likely to happen.

The town planner introduced the concept of an IHZ to the town council on February 26, 2008. Five years later, the planning and zoning commission is still uncertain of what to do. It’s still groping for information. A glacier moves faster.

Many are happy with this result. Town Councilor Craig Fishbein, who never liked the IHZ, cheered the lack of progress. He said a quicker decision would be a haphazard rush to judgment. Council Chairman Bob Parisi, who was never sold on the plan either, also said the timeline was fine. He encouraged more discussion; he did not encourage a decision. The most recent hang up is a worry about the possibility of variances. A variance is government’s permission to build on or use property in a way that is not permitted by zoning. For example, if a developer buys properties intending to develop an IHZ project, but finds the IHZ regulations bothersome or expensive to satisfy, that developer has the right to ask the Zoning Board of Appeals to “vary” the regulations.

Would a request for a variance result in changes to the carefully crafted design standards? Would the ZBA allow a developer in the IHZ to provide less parking than is required? Would we see other surprises? The quick and clear answer is no.

Variances should be tough to get. They require proof of a hardship caused by the characteristics of the land. Following the law, the ZBA couldn’t properly grant a variance merely to reduce the cost of a project.

Nor could the ZBA properly grant a variance to fix a situation the applicant caused. For example, if a developer starts a project but isn’t prepared to spend what it takes to satisfy the IHZ regulations, it will not be able to benefit from some of the IHZ regulations, and get a variance to evade other regulations that are burdensome. That ploy wouldn’t work.

Progress in the downtown, therefore, shouldn’t be frustrated because of an irrational fear that the ZBA will issue variances when it shouldn’t. It’s too bad the P & Z and the ZBA can’t just sit and talk it through. Some officials also worry that if Wallingford adopted IHZ regulations, it couldn’t change them. Proposed amendments must be approved by the state. Experts have advised that routine amendments would be approved routinely as long as they did not weaken the core principles of the zone, such as requiring some affordable housing.

We should not expect the state to issue a written guarantee that it will approve amendments. Some may treat that uncertainty, however, as a reason to say no.

We need to act. The downtown will not get prettier or more vital by itself. There are no alternative plans. The town hasn’t moved to benefit from the coming commuter rail service, even though other towns have.

Those who would sink the IHZ, therefore, need to suggest Plan B. After all, they’ve had five years to think about it.

If they don’t have ideas on how to jump start re-development in the downtown; if they have nothing to offer except aimless drift and undue caution; maybe they should reconsider the IHZ.