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Toyota zone proposal stalled by disgruntled P&Z members' questions

Published 8:21 am, Friday, February 21, 2014

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  • Catherine Walsh, a Planning and Zoning Commission member who took to the podium to speak as a private citizen, criticized P&Z Director Laurence Bradley, left, over the handling of a proposed text amendment from New Country Toyota and Scion of Westport. Photo: Jarret Liotta / Westport News contributed
    Catherine Walsh, a Planning and Zoning Commission member who took to the podium to speak as a private citizen, criticized P&Z Director Laurence Bradley, left, over the handling of a proposed text amendment from New Country Toyota and Scion of Westport. Photo: Jarret Liotta

 

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The representative of a local car dealership and the Planning and Zoning Commission's director himself both found themselves on the defensive Thursday night as the panel once again reviewed -- and put on hold -- a change to zoning regulations that would allow the business to use adjoining residential land it owns.

The presentation by a representative of New Country Toyota and Scion of Westport, 777 Post Road East, on a proposed text amendment went largely for naught, as the P&Z told Richard Redniss, the consultant representing the dealership, he had not adequately answered questions they raised when he outlined the proposal at their last meeting.

The auto dealership has asked the P&Z to approve the change in zoning regulations to allow the business to use some of its property, which is in an adjacent residential zone. In particular, Toyota wants to be able to build a three-level parking garage on up to 20 percent of its land in the residential zone just west of Ruta Court.

Earlier this month, several neighbors expressed concern over the proposed amendment, which could allow construction of a parking structure encompassing up to 30,000 square feet and as high as 35 feet.

Redniss was asked Thursday why he hadn't approached the Conservation Commission about the proposal to address questions raised at the last P&Z meeting.

He responded that he met informally with Conservation Director Alicia Mozian, who had previously commented that she felt the garage construction potentially could be too large and could have an adverse impact on the environment.

Redniss, however, said improvements envisioned for the site would actually make it better for the environment, including the elimination of a gravel parking lot that would be replaced with a parking area conforms with current environmental standards. He also noted that 80 percent of the dealership property within the residential zone would be formally designated open space.

"The horse is out of the barn," P&Z Chairman Chip Stephens said, noting that although the Conservation Commission had not officially weighed in, Mozian's view carries weight.

"As I see it, she is the proxy for the commission," he said, asking whether it wouldn't be wise for the applicant to first take the proposal to the conservation panel.

The P&Z continued its review of the auto dealer's proposal to April to give the Conservation Commission a chance to act on it.

"We would welcome that opportunity," Redniss said. "We don't shy away from that ... if that would be the linchpin on whether that moves forward or not."

"I think the concern I have is that I did raise this very question the last time you were here, and you were very clear and said (Mozian) was wrong," said Commissioner Alan Hodge, asking why Redniss was not better prepared to defend that position.

"I apologize," Redniss said. "I misread the depth of that request."

Redniss wasn't the only on the defense, as P&Z Director Laurence Bradley was questioned about his handling of the matter by Representative Town Meeting member Don Bergmann.

"In essence, I believe Director Bradley seems to be acting like a judge giving a charge to a jury (about) the perimeters of how a verdict should be given," he said. Bergmann said he was concerned that Bradley might be working too closely with the applicant to reach a compromise.

"The bottom line is that the commission has the legislative authority to approve or reject an (application) based on what the commission feels is right," he said.

"It's not intended to be a criticism" Bergmann said, but recounted a variety of ways in which he contends that Bradley is overstepping the boundaries of his role.

P&Z Commissioner Catherine Walsh, who had recused herself from acting on the dealership's proposal, commented as a private citizen that she "took umbrage" with Bradley for downplaying a reference another member of the public made about application, calling it "spot zoning."

Bradley, in his defense, later said, "When I give you (the commission) a charge, I'm not acting as a judge and I just tell you what the regulations" state. To support his point, Bradley attempted to put in the meeting record a spot zoning-related item from the town of Stonington.

Stephens, however, said he didn't find that item relevant, and told Bradley to discuss the issue with the town attorney.

"I'm not really happy about this whole thing here," he told Bradley "I would like the commission to hold off any consideration of what was just read."