Ruling bans development district plan

A Connecticut Appellate Court decision has left New Haven with no laws to address its current major development projects.

The ongoing litigation has halted several of the city’s current development plans, including Yale’s construction of a 350 car parking garage in the Mansfield neighborhood, and has spurred the proposal of two bills modifying the present zoning laws. The Connecticut Supreme Court recently announced its agreement to hear New Haven’s appeal of the Appellate Court ruling which nullify planned development districts and units citywide.

Section 65 of the Zoning Ordinance of New Haven outlines the rules for PDDs and PDUs, which are special zones the city uses for major development projects that override the city’s geometric zoning rules. Critics say the ordinance is too vague, lacks uniform standards and is subject to abuse.

An eight-year struggle waged by community members to block what they considered an intrusive expansion into the Morris Cove neighborhood under a PDD resulted in the Appellate Court’s controversial decision. Plaintiff Susan Campion, a Morris Cove resident, said she was excited about the suit’s success, and said she felt a personal commitment not to let other neighborhoods in New Haven be abused by the PDD rules. To that end, she helped found the Citywide Planned Development Collaborative, which includes representatives from ten New Haven neighborhoods interested in protecting the rights of city residents and property owners.

“Every member of our collaborative group is rooting for the city of New Haven to succeed financially,” Campion said. “But not at the expense of hijacking neighborhoods, as has been done with the Morris Cove and Mansfield areas.”

At the announcement of the Appellate Court’s decision, both the city and the collaborative began work on separate bills that would reinstate the development districts with what they feel are appropriate revisions. Until the Supreme Court reaches a verdict or legislation is passed, the city has no zoning mechanism by which it can address its pending development projects.

The collaborative’s goal is to craft an ordinance that would save the 50 existing PDDs but prevent future PDDs the groups feels is abusive — like the Mansfield Street garage — from passing, collaborative member and mayoral candidate Thomas Holahan ’63 GRD ’72 said.

“The PDD program has been terrific because it has been used responsibly in the past,” Holahan said. “But once it was abused, we realized what a weak piece of legislation it is. Putting a large parking garage in the backyards of residential neighborhoods is very detrimental to the residents, both in terms of property values and the general nuisance.”

The city is hoping to agree on a single bill to propose to the General Assembly, Robert Smuts, DeStefano’s deputy chief of staff, said. Smuts said the city wants to keep the revised ordinance nonspecific so standards can be set at the local level, but he said he is confident that they will be able to find common ground with the Collaborative.

“At the end of the day, we both have the best interest of the city in mind,” Smuts said. “And the sooner we can come to an agreement, the more time and money both sides will save.”

The New Haven Board of Alderman is planning public hearings for next month to discuss appropriate zone legislation. Alderman Ben Healey ’04 said the board aims to achieve a change in state law that will allow the Mansfield Street garage project to go forward and will better govern future projects at the city level.

“One of the complaints I see is that people see things done in the city as a fait accompli, and I think for major projects like this, their input is important,” Healey said. “I just want to make sure their concerns are incorporated into whatever the final product is.”

Associate Vice President of New Haven and State Affairs Michael Morand said he is confident the city will craft responsible laws that support the continued reasonable development of Yale. He said the proposed garage on Mansfield Street has extensive support from the citizens of New Haven and should stand on its merits in court.

“We believe that municipal development laws should maintain standards that both promote aesthetic excellence and responsible growth,” Morand said. “Yale adheres to those standards in our campus planning and construction.”

If the legislation the city promotes to revise Section 65 is passed before the Supreme Court reviews the case, the city will likely drop the case, Smuts said. But if the Supreme Court upholds the Appellate Court decision, all current development projects requiring PDDs will be prohibited.

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