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Mayor Mark Lauretti scolded the Planning & Zoning Commission for allowing too many apartment projects along Bridgeport Avenue, nitpicking downtown proposals, and not reaching a compromise over a controversial housing proposal near Huntington Center that was rejected.
“I’m going to distance myself from this commission and its decision-making,” a visibly upset Lauretti told the commission during a March 19 special meeting on changes to the Planned Development District (PDD), a zoning tool used for most major development in the city in recent decades.
“I won’t have my fingerprints on anything you approved the last couple of years,” said Lauetti, who later told the commission he knows “I came on a little hard” at the meeting.
A PDD involves creating a new special zoning district for a specific project.
Lauretti’s criticisms covered various proposals that came before the P&Z in recent years, some of which were approved, denied and altered during the application process. He stressed he favors keeping PDDs because they have, in his view, led to a lot of positive economic development in Shelton.
The use of PDDs has brought “tremendous balance” between commercial and residential projects and a low tax rate, he said.
“If people don’t think PDDs have served us well, why do you think other cities are following our model?” Lauretti asked.
He said while updating the PDD regulations isn’t necessarily a bad idea, changing something that’s working could be “an effort in futility.”
P&Z members appeared somewhat stunned at the degree and detail of the critiques by the mayor, which took place in a small meeting room with Lauretti sitting only a few feet from them, rather than in the larger City Hall auditorium.
“Just calm down,” alternate Nancy Dickal told Lauretti. “We all have different opinions.”
Dickal said any perceived changes in the P&Z’s approach during the past few years is reflective of citizen input on development proposals. “The residents have spoken,” Dickal said. “Now things are changing.”
In the 2017 election, then-P&Z Chairman Ruth Parkins was perceived as being too pro-development and was voted out of office. The massive Shelter Ridge project approved earlier that year, which includes retail, office and housing off Bridgeport Avenue, led to the formation of the Save Our Shelton grassroots organization that now actively opposes certain proposals.
Virginia Harger, the new P&Z chairman, said she wanted to “highlight the positive” and pointed out the commission is working to update the PDD rules and not eliminate them. “We’re just trying to strengthen and tighten up the loopholes,” said Harger, stressing every zoning application must be considered on an individual basis.
Member Mark Widomski, who suggested looking into PDDs and possibly limiting their use outside of downtown, said PDDs were “being used way too much” for inappropriate projects in the wrong places, such as for larger residential developments not in the central business district.
“It's getting out of control,” said Widomski, who also noted PDDs have helped the city develop well in many ways. Widomski won election to the P&Z in 2017, replacing Parkins.
Lauretti accused the P&Z of being inconsistent by allowing land zoned for light industrial to be used for residential on or near Bridgeport Avenue. “You’re not following your plans,” the mayor said.
This is leading to more property owners on Bridgeport Avenue wanting to pursue housing and a shortage of available land for light industrial uses despite a demand for it, Lauretti said. He said Stihl Corp. moved a facility out of the city because it couldn’t find land to expand here.
Light industrial “is not dead in this town,” he said, adding residential projects should be encouraged downtown and not on Bridgeport Avenue. Lauretti did support Shelter Ridge, which through a PDD will allow some housing on land that had been zoned primarily for light industrial.
Downtown, Huntington Center
Member Elaine Matto said apartments “are part of the balance” of a community’s development and limited parking downtown is an issue when large residential projects are proposed in the central business district. She said P&Z has a planning role in making sure sufficient parking exists.
Member Charles Kelly agreed large residential projects downtown need to have adequate on-site parking, pointing to the Birmingham on the River condo project on Canal Street as a development with less parking than needed.
Lauretti, as he often has in the past, said parking and traffic problems are indicative of an economically successful community. He said private housing developments would fail if there’s not enough parking to satisfy the people living there.
“The entrepreneur who invests in these things” will find a solution, the mayor insisted. He also said the city continues to look at constructing a parking garage downtown.
The downtown zoning district only requires one parking space per living unit as a way to encourage development. But Widomski said one spot per apartment isn'’ enough because most couples have two vehicles. Harger said adequate visitor parking downtown also needs to be provided as the area develops.
On Huntington Center, Matto said “since we're letting it all hang out,” P&Z’s 2018 vote against developer John Guedes’s 20-home proposal on 6.1 acres was unanimous because members felt it was inappropriate. The parcel is zoned mostly for one-acre and some half-acre lots.
Harger said Guedes’s plan “was not a reasonable proposal” and developers often “shoot for the moon” with their initial plans. P&Z members said Guedes and his attorney were not open to a compromise during the process.
Lauretti said P&Z should have compromised to avoid the developer’s current legal appeal of the denial. Guedes has since said he may pursue an 84-unit affordable housing proposal on the parcel.
The P&Z is expected to continue looking at possible changes in the PDD regulations at a meeting April 16.