2015-11-05 / Front Page

‘Big Box’ Debate Put Off

By James Merolla

Middletown residents opposed to new large commercial developments in town will have to wait until at least Nov. 16 to be heard on a proposal to ban development of so-called “big box” shopping centers and large scale buildings through next spring.

A proposed five-month moratorium against buildings with footprints exceeding 35,000 square feet was to be discussed at the Nov. 2 Town Council meeting. However, Council President Robert J. Sylvia said the town had failed to properly notify abutters and others affected by the proposal. He pledged to bring the motion up at the council’s next meeting on Nov. 16.

About 75 people filled council chambers Monday night, mostly to be heard on the proposed moratorium. Questions that have arisen regarding Middletown’s future development include:

.Why this call for a moratorium now?

.Why ban it only through next March as proposed? What is the significance of spring?

.Will it affect key plans for the Vanicek property on West Main Road, a 71-acre parcel that remains the last significant piece of open land off that roadway, recently purchased by local developers Peter and Harry Kyriakedes? Those brothers have already applied to the town for permission to turn the site into a large shopping center.

Sylvia’s proposal to consider a moratorium on large parcels arose on the same day that news of the Kyriakedes’ purchase of the parcel became public several weeks ago.

While the "Big Box" hearing was delayed, a second public hearing on clarifying the language of six amendments to the town’s Comprehensive Plan was held and continued past Monday night. While the plan was adopted locally in March, the state withheld its approval of the plan until Middletown makes further revisions.

However, before Town Planner Ronald M. Wolanski could detail the language changes being considered, Town Councilor Antone Viveiros vehemently repeated his concerns against town overdevelopment. He accused state representatives and lobbyists of “using political influence to change federal laws” to make them much more favorable to development.

He said adopting the six amendments was tantamount to letting the state control a town’s Comprehensive Plan. Such an act, Viveiros added, “will take our ability to regulate [the development] of building our homes out of our hands. This is not what is best for the people in our town.”

Wolanski reminded the council that it had already approved the Comprehensive Plan last March and that the purpose of the hearing was only to further define some language. “The state is not telling us to do anything to change our policies or our goals, [it is] simply adding language, or clarifying language, to make it more effective,” said Wolanski. He called the changes “minor.”

Affordable Housing Impact Debated

Councilor Theresa Santos then took the opportunity to reiterate her campaign for affordable senior housing in town.

Sylvia reminded Santos that affordable housing was the number two priority on the list of things that Middletown planned to address over the next 20 years when it approved the Comprehensive Plan.

Wolanski said that five of the six items needing clarification related to the specific language of housing. These included clarifying what defines “affordable housing units” to help enable Middletown to reach its mandated goal of 10 percent affordable housing in town.

The town was informed several years ago that its percentage of affordable housing – due mainly to a change in the mortgage at the Oxbow Farms housing complex off West Main Road – was only at about 5.5 percent of the goal set by the state.

Wolanski said today there are 386 units classified as affordable housing and that Middletown needed 302 more to reach the state mandate. “The bottom line is that most communities [in the state] are not meeting 10 percent,” Wolanski said.

One of the proposed amendments would add a paragraph describing the concept of collaborating in potential efforts “to convert existing mobile home parks to cooperatives” in order to meet the 10 percent goal. The number of mobile homes might push Middletown closer to the goal.

“If we haven’t met it in the last 20 years what makes them think we will meet it in the next 20 years?” asked Councilor Paul Rodrigues, who further asked for clarification of state law on the matter.

Wolanski reminded the council that there would be no true changes to anything that was voted on in March. He said the council would only be adding new language and more specific wording to what already existed.

“The Comprehensive Plan is meant to be the big picture. What does the town want to be in 20 years? And how do we get there? The plan is not written in stone,” said Wolanski.

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