Are PDD zoning rules being ‘misused' in Shelton?

The frequent use of the Planned Development District (PDD) in zoning applications is being questioned in Shelton.

The Conservation Commission has released a position statement that says that “the PDD mechanism is being misused in Shelton, particularly with regard to high density developments in residential zones.”

“The PDD mechanism was meant to be used for office parks, shopping centers and commercial areas, and should never be used in residential zones,” according to the position statement.

The zoning regulations set limits on when and where PDDs should be allowed, and some of those rules cover residential areas.

The Conservation Commission appears to have an ally in Frank Osak, a Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) alternate who is largely credited with being one of the architects of preparing Shelton for successful corporate development along the Route 8 corridor.

“You’re really stretching it,” he told P&Z members during an informal discussion on PDDs, in reaction to the Conservation Commission criticism.

“You’re kind of allowing them every place,” Osak said. “You people are having a problem telling people ‘no.’ … I’m really concerned about the process.”

Two P&Z commissioners, Thomas McGorty and Anthony Pogoda, said perhaps the commission has been too accommodating to the needs of developers in certain ways, including how quickly some applications are acted upon.

“It’s overly nice,” Pogoda said of how P&Z has acted in some cases, noting land-use boards in other towns can be tougher. “We have to do our due diligence. … Let’s find a middle ground,” he said.

The Conservation Commission serves an advisory and not regulatory role on land-use issues, which means it doesn’t approve or reject projects but may provide input to other commissions. Regulatory land-use boards are the P&Z, the Inland Wetlands Commission, and the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Residential areas

The zoning regulations say PDDs shouldn’t be used when a site is entirely surrounded by single-family residential zones or “when an alternative, conventional zoning district is available,” according to the Conservation Commission, which argues this is essentially now taking place.

It pointed to the Perry Hill Estates cluster housing PDD proposal, which is surrounded by homes and a golf course, as an example. The P&Z appears likely to approve a downsized Perry Hill Estates plan, based on a recent discussion.

It also pointed to the Pond Meadow condo PDD plan, which was near residential-zoned land but across a four-way intersection from a commercial building. The Pond Meadow application has been withdrawn due to opposition.

“Only by splitting hairs are they not ‘entirely surrounded’ by residential zones,” the Conservation Commission position statement says of these two recent applications.

According to the statement, PDDs are being pursued when the Planned Residence District (PRD) or conventional subdivisions would be more appropriate.

“Where flexibility is needed in residential areas due to topography or other factors, the PRD option is available,” says the Conservation Commission, noting open space requirements should be followed as well.

“The PDD regulations have no open space requirements because they were intended to be used for office, industrial parks or mixed uses, not residential developments,” says the Conservation Commission.

Providing input

The Conservation Commission suggested that more city departments and boards — including itself — be invited to participate in the zoning process earlier, such as when developers meet with staff and perhaps a few commissioners to informally discuss their ideas before filing formal applications.

This is an area where P&Z members seem to be in agreement, but with limitations. They said the Conservation Commission should be informed earlier in the process, providing adequate time in advance of a public hearing to study, discuss and make recommendations on an application.

This way, said P&Z member James Tickey, “they have time to meet and advise, and play a role in the process,” he said.

“I agree,” said P&Z Chairman Ruth Parkins.

But P&Z members said they don’t think the early, informal meetings between developers and P&Z staff should be open to lots of participants, because that would become cumbersome. Parkins said the meetings wouldn’t be productive that way, partly because departments and boards all have different concerns.

The Conservation Commission was upset when it had only a few days to try to offer guidance on an expansion of the Water’s Edge housing PDD plan on River Road, which was approved.

The city now has about 80 PDDs, primarily on Bridgeport Avenue, River Road and downtown. With more applications expected, Osak is hoping the PDD process becomes more refined.

“We have to define where PDDs can go and for what purpose,” Osak said. “That’s not done.”