Zoning changes create controversy

BETHANY - Planning and Zoning Commission members got an earful — and then some - last week as their proposed commercial vehicle and rear lot changes to the zoning and subdivision regulations went to a two-hour public hearing before nearly 75 residents, most strongly and vociferously opposed.

The change that drew the most fire concerned storage of commercial vehicles on residentially zoned property. The proposal specifies that:

Only one commercial vehicle may be allowed on such a lot and only if driven regularly for business by an occupant of a residence on the lot.

Any commercially used trailer, including a landscaper's, must also be stored in a building when on a residential lot for more than 48 hours.

A combination tractor-trailer is considered one commercial vehicle. Commercially registered vehicles used for farming, horses or a breeding business are exempt, as before.

Calling the proposed addition "ridiculous" and discriminatory against small businesses, "the backbone of the country," contractor Bob Marek said the new regulations will place "undue hardship" on the ones in Bethany. It could also cause some to close or move, he said. With its small business zone, the town can't afford such a tax loss, he said.

People have a right to expect a "certain consistency" in rules in planning their lives, Paul Manger said, but the new regulation "flies in the face" of this.

Sam Stewart agreed, saying, "It's not the Bethany I know. It divides Bethany."

First Selectman Craig Stahl said it would affect many volunteers in the fire and ambulance services, "the backbone of our community." He drew loud applause when he urged the board to change the proposed regulation to "maintain our rural character and not make us a suburban town."

PZC Chairwoman Sharon Huxley told the hearing audience that the board values Bethany's many small contractors "as part of our town character," but is also concerned with protecting the residential character of neighborhoods. The commission recognizes the conflicting values, she said, but wants to work out "reasonable parameters" that consider both.

"Help us develop those guidelines," she pleaded.

The hearing record is being held open on the commercial vehicle change and a number of rear lot proposals until Jan.30 at 4:30 p.m. for residents who submit written comment on them. Specific suggestions are particularly sought, Huxley said.

George Welker asked the board if vehicle allowances could be made based on a lot size and if an enclosure might be a building option. He said 48 hours is too short and arbitrary a time, considering three-day weekends and vacations.

The garaging requirement will "create more problems than it resolves," Newton "Skip" Borgerson, former PZC chairman, believes because it affects the aesthetics of a neighborhood.

Andrew Sistrand had a different "take," saying that the change in vehicle regulation addresses a real problem because next door neighbors should be considered too. "We are a suburban town with a rural character," he said, and noise or unsightly conditions can affect real estate valuations.

Richard Barnes doubted if one or two commercial vehicles on a property changed the town's character; rather, some people need commercial vehicles to make a living. The cost of building a big garage for trailers could cause financial hardship on small contractors, he said, urging the board to "rethink the whole thing."

David Crotta, an attorney said the regulation was likely to be unenforceable because it's vague and discriminatory because it draws distinctions between uses. If a business were forced to close by the rule, it could be considered a "constitutional taking" and lead to "enormous litigation," he said.

Lester Sarkady, a former PZC member, said," There has to be some recognition that as a town grows, some changes have to be made," such as protecting the value of residential zone houses. He commended the commssion for tackling the issue.

"Why outlaw people who help us?" asked Erwin Stewart, citing those who snowplow, cut lawns and provide other local services. He wished everyone was "tidy," but said, but that isn't' "the nature of a rural community."

Asked to explain how the proposed vehicle regulation evolved, Zoning Enforcement Officer Robert Brinton said that for more than a decade large vehicles could be stored on a property, if in regular use, but that this section was deleted when the rules were changed in 2000. Since then the lack of a clear definition has made it unclear what can be done and difficult to process complaints, he explained.

Proposed changes about rear lots also caused comment.

Current standards for creation of rear lots are vague or confusing and need new criteria, Huxley said. The new rule states this would "provide greater design and development flexibility to promote and enhance the protection of open space and valuable natural resources," and implement the town plan, where a rear lot is "practical, reasonable and desirable."

Manger charged that the proposed change, :sounds like an effort to limit the development of rear lots." Welker questioned the vagueness of some of the language and the difficulty of defining "aesthetic."

Engineer John Paul Garcia urged a definite standard be created, as did Tom Cavaliere, who said rear lots should not be discretionary but granted if they meet the criteria.

Conservation Chairman Kenneth Martin favored providing new flexibility to the rear lot requirements, citing two improved subdivision plans that almost failed under current limitations.