How do you draw a picture of a concept?
As the Tolland Planning and Zoning Commission learned from a handful of concerned property owners Monday, it isn’t easy.
Faced with an apparent disconnect between its intentions and public perception, the commission postponed approval of its new Tolland Village Area concept and, almost literally, went back to the drawing board.
The commission will reconvene June 13 with revisions to its proposal to create a new zoning district that would guide and encourage the evolution of a “village-style town center” on the north side of Interstate 84 at Merrow Road (Route 195). Those revisions will include changes to the “conceptual use diagram” included in the Plan of Conservation and Development document.
At Monday’s public hearing on the proposed amendment to the development plan, several owners of property in the affected area showed up to object to the proposal as either being too restrictive, unclear, illegal, unworkable and/or off-putting to potential developers. Town council member Dale Clayton had similar issues.
Though none of the property owners objected in principle to the idea of a walkable and human-scaled “downtown” Tolland, several had concerns based on the commission’s graphic depiction of the proposed uses on the “conceptual use diagram.” The graphic uses colored shapes to roughly delineate various residential, commercial, mixed use and open space areas.
Although several commissioners repeatedly said the graphic was merely conceptual, property owners said it seemed to rule out some of their prospects for using their land. The new concept, some six years in the making, comes at a time when the demand for commercial land is only now showing signs of reviving, one property owner said.
Michael Taylor, who owns 26 acres west of Route 195 – the single largest parcel in the village area – said he “whole-heartedly” supports the downtown concept as long as the various use areas depicted on the drawing are viewed “flexibly.”
Taylor said investors have only recently shown renewed interest in developing a hotel and restaurant on part of his land near the highway and a CVS pharmacy on Route 195 just north of the existing commercial strip. Neither of those parts of his land are shown on the commission’s drawing as being available for commercial development under the new proposal. The hotel in the concept drawing, Taylor observed, is on the eastern side of Route 195.
Other landowners and their representatives had similar concerns about their parcels that straddle different areas in the commission’s graphic.
At the recommendation of Vice Chair Marilee Beebe-Kostrun, the commission’s planning consultant will make changes to the graphic that more accurately reflect the plan’s intent to allow for more dense and flexible use of land by developers in exchange for more town control over architectural styles and design.
Clayton, who was absent from the council meeting that approved the proposal, said he would not have endorsed it because of its potential to “scare away developers ” from the Exit 68 area. Clayton said, “we need more hotels and stores in this area.”
Other property owners had similar concerns. Tim Hollister, a lawyer representing property owner Stephen Williams, said the regulations controlling village development are “illegal” as written, “unworkable,” and would have the effect of “freezing his property for the foreseeable future.”
Hollister presented the commission with a detailed volume of concerns challenging some of the village area proposal’s fundamental concepts. As written, he said, the proposal gives landowners no way to use their land without first obtaining a special permit from the commission. That's illegal, he said.
Rather than flexibility, developers want “clear, objective design standards” and “clarity and certainty” in regulations, he continued, not the “layers of uncertainty” built into the proposal. He also said the town could not require landowners to cooperate with adjoining properties in order to take advantage of the new zone’s zero-setback and other flexible use requirements.
Council member Clayton and others had issues with the likely creation of a new signalized intersection just north of the existing retail area. It would serve a new east-west connector road that would, in concept, be the spine of the new downtown. The western leg of the road would transect Taylor’s property, connecting Route 195 with Cider Mill Road.
The conceptual plan seemed to necessitate that the new intersection require use of land that is currently privately owned. That might be true, board members said, but the plan does not endorse “taking” of land in the legal sense, nor does it specify the exact plan for widening and aligning the intersection.
The ultimate design of that intersection could control how the remainder of the zone evolves, several property owners said.