Proposed Zoning Revision Prompts Big-Box Fears

Courant Staff Writer

September 20 2006

SIMSBURY -- A proposed change to the town's zoning regulations that supports mixed-use development has spurred concern among a homeowners' organization opposed to big-box retail developments.

Both sides agree that the zoning recommendation, which would allow the town to establish planned development districts, is a step in the right direction. Town officials say the districts would better allow development proposals to mirror the unique character of different areas in town and include a mix of development uses.

"The beauty of the planned development district is its ability to adapt to development, topography and natural resources around it, where conventional zoning doesn't often allow that match-up to take place," said Hiram Peck, acting director of community planning and development.

Town and zoning officials say the motivation for the change was to be proactive, knowing that there were several developers interested in building mixed-use projects, including Konover Development Corp., which wants to develop about 60 acres along Route 10 that would consist of residential, office and retail space. A component that is important to the plan, called River Oaks, is a national anchor tenant, according to T. J. Donohue, land-use counsel for Konover.

But members of Simsbury Homeowners Advocating Responsible Expansion, or SHARE - which opposes big-box development - question the timing of the proposed change, which comes shortly before Konover is expected to file its preliminary plan for River Oaks.

The concept of planned development districts "seems to be the right direction to go," said Alan Needham, a member of SHARE's steering committee. But "why now? Why is this being proposed right before Konover submits its application?"

"I'm not against the [planned development district] concept," said John Lucker, who is also on the steering committee. "What I'm against is the lack of specificity" in the proposal.

Members of SHARE say they would like to see a restriction regarding the building of big-box retail stores in the planned development districts. They say among their concerns is a recommendation that calls for a maximum lot coverage of up to 40 percent, but allows a developer to increase that up to 60 percent if it contributes to the open space fund at a specified rate or donates a parcel of open space at a specified cost.

Proposals to the zoning regulations had been scheduled for discussion at a zoning commission meeting Monday night at town hall. Because of an overflow crowd, zoning officials said they are rescheduling the hearing. A new date had not been set as of Tuesday.

Town and zoning officials caution that the proposed zoning regulations are for the whole town and are not geared to any one project. Peck said the proposal allows for more detailed information on developers' site plans and gives the public more information at the beginning of a project.

With the changes, the zoning commission is "trying to get proposals from applicants they think are appropriate instead of developers dictating what they want to see," Peck said. "I can assure you ... there is no plan to subvert anybody's ability to discuss or talk about this."

"We're trying to put in place regulations that give us the capacity to hear an application that wants to have mixed uses, which we think is, in fact, a good way for many projects to be designed," said zoning commission Chairman Austin "Dunny" Barney.

There is an ongoing process of amending the zoning regulations, so there's nothing unusual about the proposed changes, Barney said. The inclusion of planned development districts is one of several changes the commission is considering to the zoning regulations.

Peck suggests residents put their specific concerns into writing and file them with the zoning commission in advance of the public hearing on the issue. It gives commission members a chance to read and study the comments, he said.

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Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant