P&Z: Development rules could be altered

The timing of when zone changes take effect in the Planned Development District (PDD) application process and related PDD issues recently were discussed by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The P&Z is looking at revising the zoning regulations for PDDs, which are the zone changes used for most major projects in Shelton. A PDD involves the creation of a new special zoning district for a specific project.

“Member Mark Widomski said allowing PDD zone changes before a development’s final site plans are approved by the P&Z seems backwards, and enables a developer to get a zone change before separate wetlands approval is received on a project.

This approach may be in “conflict” with state land-use laws, he said at a Feb. 19 special meeting on possible revisions to the PDD rules.

A zone change immediately increases the value of the land, Widomski said, and the current process can enable a developer to make extensive changes to an initial plan after zone change approval.

Widomski said the city’s zoning regulations previously didn’t allow a PDD zone change to take effect until the final site plans were approved by the P&Z. “We flip flopped that logical order of doing things,” he said, adding the old rules meant there “were no surprises along the way.”

Some other members disagreed with his suggestion.

“No one would ever develop in this town if you needed a final site plan before you got PDD approval,” Elaine Matto said.

Matto said a PDD represents “approving a concept” and a project can’t move forward without eventually getting the P&Z’s final site plan approval and, when required due to the presence of wetlands-regulated land, permission of the Shelton Inland Wetlands Commission.

It was noted the regulations include a provision for the P&Z to later reverse a PDD zone change if an approved development doesn’t take place within a certain number of years.

Some people have criticized PDDs for allowing “spot zoning” by giving too much latitude to the P&Z to authorize projects inconsistent with a property’s traditional zoning designation. Critics claim the proliferation of PDDs leads to overdevelopment and projects being put in inappropriate locations.

Others, however, think PDDs provide flexibility to make Shelton a desirable place for quality development while giving the P&Z greater control over specifics of larger projects.

Widomski, elected to the commission in 2017, has pushed for changes in the PDD rules and even suggested enacting a PDD moratorium everywhere but downtown.

The P&Z now is holding special meetings to discuss possibly making changes in the PDD regulations. The Feb. 19 meeting focused on potential revisions put forth by Widomski, who emphasized his ideas were meant to promote discussion and may not all be feasible.

As the regulations work now, developers seek approval of a PDD and present initial concept plans for a property as the first step in the zoning process.

If the PDD is approved, the developer then refines the proposal and seeks P&Z approval of final site plans for the land.

Widomski said perhaps developers should be required to informally discuss potential PDD applications with the P&Z before submitting formal applications.

These informal discussions provide guidance to developers outside the actual application process and sometimes take place now but are optional. Developers also meet with P&Z staff to refine potential applications.

Widomski said giving advance direction to developers could shorten the time the P&Z spends on PDD applications once filed.

City planning consultant Anthony Panico warned if the informal discussions become mandated, it could lead to legal challenges about a plan being pre-judged before public hearings are held on an application.

Widomski also suggested the Conservation Commission and Parks & Recreation Commission be among the city agencies that must review zoning applications.

Other P&Z members seemed to agree with some of Widomski’s suggestions, such as always allowing the public to comment on new material when an application’s public hearing is kept open to receive such information.

The P&Z will meet again on PDDs on March 19, when it expects to discuss revision ideas compiled by Panico.