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The Planning & Zoning Commission (PZC) has unanimously approved a zoning amendment that allows for specific type of floating zone in Madison. Supporters called the amendment a tool to help encourage thoughtful development in town, but opponents saw the amendment as the start of a slippery slope.
Floating zoning differs from regular zoning in several ways. Under regular zoning practice, the owner of a parcel (and the neighbors of that parcel) knows what uses are allowed by right and what are prohibited in a given zone. With a floating zone, the town defines uses it would like to encourage and creates a zone that can be landed on other existing zones if the applicant meets the standards for the site set by the PZC.
In towns that have adopted floating zones, supporters have praised the improved ability to better attract businesses and the ability of the PZC to require designs that exceed the standards of existing regulations. Opponents of floating zones cite the uncertainty that neighboring properties face when a zone can be quickly changed; they also note that under floating zones, a handful of appointed officials on the PZC are granted greater power.
The Adopted Proposal
Use of a floating zone was built into the Madison Zoning Regulations in 2006. The proposal adopted by the PZC on June 20 an was an “amendment to add Section 32, Planned Development District, to the Town of Madison Zoning Regulations. The Planned Development District is a floating zone, to permit flexible, comprehensively planned commercial, residential, or mixed-use developments that further the policies, goals and strategies of the Plan of Conservation and Development.” The petitioner for the change was 155 New Road Madison LLC.
Director of Planning and Economic Development Dave Anderson said this amendment could help clarify some of the language used in the original floating zone amendment, an amendment no developer has taken advantage of.
“So I’m looking at this whole thing as a real opportunity, so I’d like to see this regulation pass and us be able to utilize it and kind of make some improvements to the town that are long overdue,” he said.
Anderson said this regulation doesn’t change the basic proceeding how a proposal comes before PZC. He said it doesn’t eliminate any public hearing or noticing requirements and is designed to open up more opportunities in town.
“It’s only that next step where that actual planned development district will propose to be landed on a particular property that we would be inviting someone to give us their ideas on what might happen there,” he said. “And that next stage is still onerous in some fashion. There’s still a public hearing component, there’s property owner notification, and the commission is under no obligation to approve that next step. We’re just inviting someone to propose something to us. So, you know, candidly, in my staff report to you, I recommended you strongly consider approving this because I think it’s a mechanism that would be very useful for us in the future for other challenging zoning situations.”
The Planned Development District has a set of permitted and not permitted uses. Anderson said some of the prohibited uses include automobile service station, car washes, auto repair maintenance, tattoo parlors, propane stores, adult uses, industrial warehouse manufacturing, and massage parlors.
Additionally, Anderson said this new floating zone couldn’t be applied just anywhere in town right now. The Planned Development District floating zone can only be applied in what is designated an area of opportunity in the Plan of Conservation and Development. As of right now, the only area identified as such in town is a portion of property close to I-95 exit 62.
Origins of the Proposal
The regulation amendment is not specific to just one parcel of land, but some residents in attendance at the meeting had concerns over a particular property. The reason for that concern is because the regulation amendment came from and was authored by Attorney Marjorie Shansky, representing a client identified as 155 New Road Madison, LLC. The lot for 155 New Road is located at the northwest corner of the New Road/Hammonasset connector intersection.
Shansky was asked by her client to look at the current zoning regulations.
“The mission with which I was charged was to examine your regulations and to find a flexible zoning technique that could be used to create either a mixed used development, a commercial development, or a residential development,” she said.
Shansky worked with Anderson and the regulation was reviewed by state officials, town officials, and the town attorney. However, residents had some concerns because Shansky could not or would not comment on her client’s current or potential interest in the 155 New Road property.
Anderson said the regulation isn’t about a specific property but again pointed out to residents that the list of possible uses, “is not a Pandora’s Box. There are some restrictions placed within this regulation”.
“I know there’s some specific concern about 155 New Road, which you know, we’re not going to talk about in detail tonight,” he said. “But the one thing I would say is you know, in my discussions with the person that is hoping to develop that property, they’re very aware of the sensitivity of that area, of the intersection of other details of that specific site. So in some ways, I look at this flexible zoning tool as an opportunity to help really work with the developer to address some of those things.”
Residents who spoke in opposition to the regulation mainly focused on what could possibly happen on the property at 155 New Road. However, members of the commission unanimously supported and adopted the regulation despite some specific concerns. “Because it’s tied to a specific property, and it was created by an outside attorney, I think the public has great concern that it’s targeted for one property, and there’s only one property possible,” said PZC Alternate Ron Bodinson. “That being said, it’s still a tool that Madison deserves to have, and I’m in favor of it, and the public is, who’s here today, concerned, has every reason to be concerned about that piece of property. But you’re going to have lots of opportunity to deal with in the future, and so will we.”
Commissioner Joseph Bunovsky said he hears and understands the public concern but said given the limitation built into the regulation, he thinks it will do more good than harm.
“In future planning, perhaps more areas of interest could be generated and that’s where this tool, really, would really be a useful one,” he said. “So, I don’t see this as an immediate danger, as I’m sure many people in this room do. I see it as future help. But I have no illusions as to other things.”
PZC Alternate Peter Roos was seated for the June 20 meeting; he is the reporter’s father.
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