Contentious zoning changes discussed

Emotions ran high as around 30 New Haven residents showed up to City Hall on a Wednesday night public hearing regarding a potential zoning change, which they argue would negatively affect the Chapel West and Ninth Square areas in an attempt to attract development.

Deputy Director of Zoning Thomas Talbot and Deputy Director of Economic Development Tony Bialecki explained the potential zoning changes to the City Plan Commission during the hearing. The changes would loosen restrictions on mixed-use development — which provides a ground floor of retail with upper stories of living space — and enable developers to offer more parking spaces for compact cars.

Various residents, including members of the Friends of the Dwight Street Historic District, or FDSHD, spoke out against the proposed changes, arguing that they would destroy the district and allow developers to take over the area. The commission tabled the vote for a later date.

In addition to arguments about encouraging development, Talbot and Bialecki said that there was an erroneous change in the text of the zoning laws that forced developers in the zoning type BD1 to be subject to stricter laws than originally intended. The amendment would fix this, they said.

“The original intent of the BD1 was to allow mixed use to take place without lots of issues about variances and things of that nature,” Bialecki said, as mixed-use developers in areas designated BD1 currently must have their projects approved by the Board of Zoning Appeals. “It’s important to go back and clarify that original intent.”

However, members of the FDSHD gave testimony opposing the amendments. Patricia Kane, one of the co-founders of FDSHD, argued that these changes would be an “elimination of protections” for residential homes in historic districts and mentioned the Kelo v. City of New London case as an example of the state unfairly extending its powers of eminent domain.

“I became concerned with hearing the news that the zoning laws might change. To my understanding, these changes would open the door to unrestricted development,” Dwight Street resident and FDSHD member Victoria Vebell said. “I am all for development and growth in the city, but there has to be guidelines that are both in agreement with the local residents and the government.”

Another member of the group, Susan Bradford, said that these changes would turn the district into an “anything goes” district for commercial development.

Winfield Davis, the executive director of the Town Green Special Services District, explained that currently, mixed-use developers must circumvent these zoning requirements that the proposed changes aim to amend by obtaining exemptions from the Board of Zoning Appeals.

“This is a significant hurdle that adds an unnecessary ambiguity to the mixed-use projects’ viability, and can mean the difference between developing in New Haven or elsewhere,” Davis said.

In his original presentation, Talbot also spoke about the potential deterrence current zoning rules pose to developers. Developers may ultimately be turned away after stages of financial and development planning if the Board of Zoning Appeals does not approve their mixed-use development, and these “risks” are not “normally associated” with development.

Resident Marjorie Shansky urged the commission to table the changes and vote at a later date, suggesting that the commission should work with all the relevant parties to find a fair way to amend the zoning laws.

FDSHD member Olivia Martson said that the organization has made numerous attempts to cooperate and compromise to find a plan that FDSHD members would agree to, but ultimately failed.

Audrey Tyson, one of the commission’s members, left the meeting early to travel to the presidential inauguration, and the rest of the members voted to table the resolution.

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