Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Local News

Conversation Started on Overlay Zones in Essex

A proposal for the use of overlay zones developed by the former Planning Commission that could potentially spur development in five areas, or nodes, was discussed at the April 6 Essex Planning & Zoning Commission (PZC) meeting.

These nodes, already identified for that purpose by the town’s 2015—’25 Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), exist in distinct geographic areas, including in the villages of Centerbrook, Essex, and Ivoryton as well as the commercial area on Bokum and Westbrook roads and near the entrance ramp to Route 9.

Town Planner John Guszkowski, using the Route 9 Gateway Node Development Overlay (RoGaNDO) as an example, said the purpose is “to allow for an increase of activity that is well designed and well planned to ramp up activity, particularly (on) underutilized properties of that gateway area.”

The parcels within an overlay zone must meet a two-acre minimum requirement for eligibility, according to a draft text change to zoning regulations for RoGaNDO.

A two-step process for applicants is also being proposed for any development within an overlay zone. The first would be review by the PZC of a master plan for the official zone change.

“So, someone would be coming in with basically a master plan level drawing that would be of sufficient detail to convince you, the PZC, that this concept was a good idea and that it was appropriate to the zone and it would enhance the community,” said Guszkowski.

The second step would be submission of a formal application to the PZC for a special permit or special exception plan.

The process, “on the front end, it gives you a tremendous amount of discretion,” said Guszkowski. “On the back end, it gives the applicant a tremendous amount of flexibility in terms of development.”

The proposal for overlay zones in town, which is not yet a formal application, was met with mixed responses by members of the PZC, which was recently formed from the previous, independent Zoning and Planning commissions.

An alternate on the PZC, Thomas “Tom” Carroll used the Colonial Fresh Market as an example of an empty piece of commercial property, asking, “Do we really have a need for building more commercial properties in town when it seems like we can’t fill the ones we have?”

Jane Siris, vice chair of the PZC, discussed how the overlay zones could be a starting point for development that was good for the town.

“I think the idea here would be that we could encourage some kind of healthy development. It would be good for the community,” said Siris. “And so, we’re just laying the groundwork for the possibility, if we find somebody who would want to do it, that there was a framework for it.”

She added that the former Planning Commission “could not agree about the town of Essex. That is one of the five nodes, although I do think we should tackle it, but that one is pretty controversial.”

Siris later discussed the need for more housing diversity in Essex, such as the housing project near the railroad that has a portion of units designated as affordable housing.

“I think the community could certainly use more developments like this. So, if this helps, then I’m all for it,” she said.

Carroll responded by agreeing with the need for more affordable housing, but beyond Essex Village.

“When you’re driving down Westbrook Avenue and you’re looking at farmland, it’s a big draw for a lot of people…Maybe people come here because they like the fact that there hasn’t been change. I mean, do we really want something that looks like exit 35 off I-95 in Milford?”

Erin Borruso, member on the PZC, said that the proposal for overlay zones is “a way for us to be proactive with the change rather than reactive, and that this allows us to identify if we want growth and where it is and what it might look like, rather than have an application come onto our desks in a year that is really not ideal.”

Ralph Monaco, who was previously the longest serving member on the Planning Commission, provided context as to how the idea originated.

“My recollection is the discussion for the POCD arose primarily, if I recall correctly, out of the Ivoryton Subcommittee Study group,” said Monaco. “People talked how, just generally speaking, Essex needs to encourage more development, more good development in the villages, Ivoryton being one of them.

“[T]his idea developed out of that. What do we do to try to encourage more vibrancy to a place like Ivoryton? And so from that discussion, we turned, I think, to places like Bokum Corner and the Route 9 gateway because they seemed to be a little less controversial and a little easier to tackle, potentially,” he continued.

PZC Chair Russell “Russ” Smith, expressed an interest in seeing maps of all five nodes for the proposed overlay zones along with text for a zoning regulations amendment application for review at the commission’s next regular meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, May 4.

A public hearing on changes to the town’s zoning regulations would be required if the proposal were to move forward.

Elizabeth Reinhart covers news for Chester, Deep River, and Essex for Zip06. Email Elizabeth at e.reinhart@shorepublishing.com.

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