Controversial Hawleyville Warehouse Zoning Request Denied By P&Z
UPDATE: This report was updated online at 1 pm June 17 adding input from a P&Z alternate who did not participate in the June 16 Wharton vote.
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The Newtown Middle School auditorium erupted in applause June 16 as the Planning & Zoning Commission denied a special exception request for a controversial warehouse proposal in Hawleyville.
Residents who attended the meeting in opposition to the application, many who had protested, waged social media campaigns, and flooded The Newtown Bee Letter Hive with passionate correspondence, cheered the 3-2 vote. Commissioners Corinne Cox, Gregory Rich, and Kersti Ferguson opted to deny the request; while Chairman Dennis Bloom and commissioner Roy Meadows opposed the denial.
The vote Thursday evening marked a culmination of hearings for Wharton Equity Partners, LLC, a development firm applying for a Special Exception to M-2A Zoning for property at 10 Hawleyville Road and 1 Sedor Lane to permit the construction of a 344,880-square-foot warehouse with truck docks, trailer, and vehicle parking, along with associated site work.
Attorney Tom Cody, representing Wharton, declined a request for comment after the meeting. The applicant has the option to appeal the commission's decision, if it chooses. Prior to its decision to deny, the commission had two other matters regarding the application to decide.
The first was whether commissioners believed a petition of objection to the special exception had the signatures of 20% of nearby landowners. Passing a certain threshold of endorsing residents could have forced the P&Z decision to be carried by a supermajority versus a majority.
At the previous P&Z meeting on June 2, Cody said upon reviewing the document, it was found petitioners overstated the amount of acreage within 500 feet of the warehouse property, and failed to obtain the 20% of signatories needed. Cody said with the current signatories, the land they own only covers 8.8% of the area surrounding the property, not 20%.
A review by town staff corroborated those findings, according to Attorney Patricia Sullivan of Cohen and Wolf, representing the town. Following that review, intervenors got more signatures, enough to now meet the threshold. That affirmation cleared the petition to be submitted at any point prior to the commission's final decision.
The commission voted unanimously to approve the petition, meaning the panel would need a supermajority to approve the special exception, which in the end was a moot point.
The second decision was whether the intervenors succeeded in proving that the application would do environmental harm through air pollution or water pollution. The commission decided unanimously that the intervenors did not prove their case. Despite that vote, the commission could still deny the application on other grounds.
With those matters decided, the commission began its deliberations on the special exception application itself.
In discussion leading up to the vote, Cox said she had concerns, the first being that the applicant had not amended its application to only include 55 bay doors rather than 76 as suggested by Cody at a previous meeting. She also said the "building design was not consistent with the use as a warehouse," believing it looked to her more like a distribution center.
She said trucks would not move smoothly through the property and there would be "a lot of noise and a lot of problems."
Cox also noted the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) was not asked for an opinion, and thought the truck volume would produce air pollution. Lastly, she felt the site plan did "not fit into the area."
"This is not a compatible use with the surrounding residential properties," said Cox.
She believed the traffic plan calling for a bypass lane was "illegal," and that extra traffic in the area would be problematic with several nearby intersections already showing poor levels of service, according to traffic studies.
"This should not go forward," said Cox, to the applause of residents in attendance.
Rich agreed, saying he felt the findings in Wharton's traffic study and Solli Engineering's study for the town corroborating the findings were "based on false or inaccurate assumptions." Rich also expressed disappointment that a sound study repeatedly requested by commission alternate member Brian Leonardi was never done.
Meadows said he "agonized" over the decision, but that an "owner of a property has the right to develop it."
"Although there has been much objection, the impact of a storage warehouse would be less than the impact of the many other proposals for the site over the years," said Meadows. "I feel this is less intrusive than the others."
Meadows said the biggest issue to him was traffic. While he felt most of the truck traffic would go to Interstate 84, he had concerns about traffic on Route 25 and Route 6. He said Wharton's traffic engineer Mike Dion "admitted the outgoing trips were based on assumptions and judgments."
"We don't know what material is being brought in, where it is going, or how it is going," said Meadows. "The number of truck trips is questionable."
Meadows wanted a condition put on the approval to add a left turn lane into the facility, which Land Use Director George Benson noted could only be approved by the Connecticut Department of Transportation.
Meadows believed the application "conformed to the town's Plan of Conservation and Development."
The decision to either appeal, return and reapply with a modified plan, or withdraw the proposal completely and seek another site is now back in the hands of the applicant, according to Benson, who spoke with The Newtown Bee following the meeting.
Alternate Weighs In
Around noontime the day after the meeting, P&Z Alternate Brian Leonardi contacted The Newtown Bee asking to share his thoughts with the public regarding the proposal and vote. His comments are detailed below and will also appear in the June 24 "Letter Hive."
In his role as Alternate Commissioner on Planning & Zoning said he was not able to lend any final commentary to the discussion that took place prior to the Commission’s vote on the Wharton application. However, given the significant public interest in the application, Leonardi said he wanted to provide, "rationale for why I would have been a “No” vote for this Application."
"Article XI of Newtown’s Planning & Zoning Regulations focuses exclusively on Special Exceptions and establishes 8 requirements that 'shall' (i.e. must) be satisfied in order for a special exception to be granted. While all of these are relevant, Section 11.01.427 was central to my analysis of the Application," Leonardi stated.
"Specifically, Section 11.01.427 of the Regulations notes that 'The streets serving the proposed use shall be adequate to carry all prospective traffic. Adequate provision shall be made for entering and leaving the subject site in such a manner that no undue hazard to traffic or undue traffic congestion shall be created.'"
In its initial presentation on April 7, Leonardi said that Wharton made the following observations: *The Eastbound Exit 9 Offramp is currently rated as Level of Service D during the AM/PM peak hours;
*The Westbound Exit 9 Offramp would move from a C to a D Level of Service rating during AM peak hours should the warehouse be built, and;
*The three-way intersection at Mt. Pleasant/Route 6/Hawleyville is currently rated Level of Service E/F during AM/PM peak hours, respectively.
Importantly, Wharton’s Traffic Engineer indicated that 'Level of Service D is generally considered the limit of acceptable motorist delay.' Using this definition, we must infer that Level of Service E is beyond the limit of acceptable motorist delay," Leonardi said. "Wharton’s Traffic Engineer also indicated that Level of Service F “can often imply a complete breakdown of that location.”
Leonardi said these findings were supported by the Town’s Traffic Consultant, Solli Engineering, who noted that Level of Service E is indicative of “approaching roadway capacity” and Level of Service F “exceeds roadway capacity”.
"Were this application to have been approved, all of the roadways servicing the proposed site, 10 Hawleyville Road, would have seen increased daily car and truck trips, particularly during AM/PM peak hours," Leonardi continued. "This increase would have further exacerbated conditions at the D, E, and F rated roadways, pushing them either further beyond acceptable motorist delay or closer to or beyond capacity limits.
"While I am in favor of responsible commercial development in Newtown," Leonardi said, "I believe it would have been irresponsible to further aggravate traffic conditions by approving an application that, by its very design, is reliant upon commercial trucking to achieve its principal use.
"For this reason," he concluded, "as well as related considerations which I have not [stated here], I did not believe that Wharton’s request for a Special Exception was otherwise consistent with the Special Exception requirements set forth within Article XI, particularly Section 11.01.427, and was appropriately denied."
Associate Editor Jim Taylor can be reached at email@example.com.