P&Z discusses plans to preserve open space

A special zoning district intended to guide large residential developments in Shelton is being updated so it's more relevant for today's development projects.

The Planning and Zoning Commission is in the process of replacing the current Planned Residence Districts (PRDs) with Designed Residential Developments (DRDs), partly as a way to preserve more open space through clustered-type development.

In general, developers would be allowed slightly more housing units than usual in return for preserving large parts of the development site as open space.

According to the proposed DRD language, the goal is "to provide a voluntary mechanism and alternative design standards that will encourage the preservation of open space and protect agricultural lands, forests, wildlife habitat, contiguous protected areas, and the suburban character of the city of Shelton."

The proposal states the new zoning designation could "produce a flexible and economical alternative to conventional subdivisions" while reducing sprawl, limiting the need for new infrastructure, and having private homeowners associations pay for new roads.

Developers have not been pursuing PRD applications for decades, with most large-scale housing developments instead being approved as Planned Development Districts (PDDs), which also can be used for commercial projects such as office buildings, manufacturing facilities and retail stores.

But the P&Z has since eliminated the use of PDDs on land that abuts only residential properties.

The P&Z had been criticized for approving so many PDDs for large projects, both commercial and residential, with opponents complaining some developments are out of character for neighborhoods.

PDDs do not require that any land be set aside as open space, in contrast to PRDs and regular subdivision rules. Subdivision regulations allow the P&Z to require that 10% of the land being developed be set aside as open space, or an equivalent fee be paid to the city.

The new DRDs may mandate that 30% of all buildable land on a property be preserved as open space. Excluded from the buildable land classification would be wetlands, steep slopes, flood plains and land with certain other characteristics.

City P&Z Administrator Rick Schultz said the idea for DRDs comes from the city master plan, which encourages "re-examining all our conservation techniques that promote more open space than traditional subdivisions."

The city wants to create additional open space, Schultz said, and this can be accomplished by buying property — as the city does at times — or by using the zoning regulations to require open space be set aside as part of development proposals.

He said residential developers consider the current PRDs to be outdated. "No one uses it," Schultz said.

A public hearing on the proposed DRD — technically called a text amendment, since it involves changing the language of the zoning regulations — should continue at the P&Z's Aug. 8 meeting.

The Conservation Commission has made some suggestions on the DRD proposal. Among them are not allowing detention pond areas to count toward the required open space acreage, and not restricting ownership of DRD-created open space to private homeowners associations.

According to the Conservation Commission, having the city own the new open space should be an option. "The commission disagrees with recent efforts to avoid public open space properties," Conservation Commission Chairman Tom Harbinson wrote in a letter to the P&Z.

The city has encouraged private open space ownership while approving developments to minimize future costs to the city, such as for liability and maintenance.

Minimum 10 acres

To be eligible for a DRD, according to the proposal, a property must be at least 10 acres and have 50 feet of frontage on a city street.

The new open space must consist of one or two pieces of land, not many small pieces. Once land is set aside for open space, it can never be developed.

DRDs would be allowed in three existing zoning districts — R-1A (almost three acres), R-1 (almost one acre), and R-3 (about a quarter of an acre). There would still be certain minimum lot sizes, and all utilities would have to be underground.

A developer would be allowed to construct 5% more units on a property through a DRD than allowed by normal zoning, based on buildable area calculations.

The proposal includes incentives to allow even more housing units if at least 60% of the property is open space, at least 50% of the non-developed land is used for agricultural purposes, at least 10 acres is used for forestland, the public can use the open space, or the new open space abuts existing open space to create at least 50 acres of protected open space.