A public hearing regarding an amendment to the allowable floor area ratio (FAR) in zone BC attracted a capacity crowd to West Hartford Town Hall.
By Ronni Newton
Citing a need to engage in complete and meaningful discussion with the entire community as previously promised, the West Hartford Town Council voted Tuesday night to unanimously reject, without prejudice, a zoning amendment proposed by developer Lexham West Hartford Owner LLC.
The vote followed a public hearing that lasted more than three hours and was attended by a standing-room-only crowd in Council chambers. Lexham’s representatives presented details on the proposal, and 19 people spoke at the hearing with the majority voicing opposition.
“We promised the public we would do outreach,” Mayor Shari Cantor said before she cast her vote to deny the proposal. The zoning amendment would have increased allowable floor area ratio (FAR) – the ratio of the square footage of a building to the square footage of the plot of land it sits on – from 1.25 to 1.5 in zone BC but require all proposals to be include an application for a Special Development District.
Cantor said the pieces all seemed to make sense, including that the change would be in line with West Hartford’s own Plan of Conservation and Development and was unanimously approved by the Town Planning and Zoning Commission on Sept. 7, but the proposal came from the developer not directly from the town and she felt that it was premature to approve it without engaging in proper discussion with the community.
Lexham West Hartford Owner, LLC submitted the request in August to amend the existing ordinance to allow FAR to be increased from 1.25 to 1.5. The increased FAR would be required for a project the company would like to build as an “infill” development in West Hartford Center, a moderately-sized residential complex consisting of two four-story buildings with total of approximately 85 apartment units, retail/commercial space, and parking.
The development would be built on land Lexham already owns – the current parking lot of 65 LaSalle Rd. (Webster Bank, Becker’s Jewelers); and in an area that is currently surface parking for tenants and employees of 25-55 LaSalle (Ávert, McLadden’s, future Noble & Co., Central Optica); and 1001 Farmington Ave. (Scottrade and Optimal Wellness). The underground parking would replace all of the surface parking lost.
Current zoning regulations allow for four-story structures in zone BC, and Lexham’s proposed change did not alter the height restriction.
Although Lexham had not filed an application for the project, a rendering of the proposed development was provided to the Town Council as well as to residential and commercial property owners as part of the company’s outreach. All that the Town Council considered Tuesday night was the zoning amendment, although some residents who spoke at the public hearing expressed opinions about the apartment development as well.
“The [zoning] application is a wonderful plan, potentially,” Cantor said, but she and other Council members ultimately decided that timing was the issue, and the Town Council itself needs to engage in discussion with the public as promised after it withdrew, following multiple public hearings, a different proposed zoning amendment in April. That ordinance was proposed by town staff and the change would have been much more extensive than what Lexham proposed, including an increase in FAR to 1.75 and allowing for five-story buildings in the BC district.
Other Council members echoed the same concerns as Cantor expressed. Minority Leader Denise Hall, a Webster Bank employee, recused herself from the vote and alternate Garrett Flynn voted in her place.
“We promised the community there would be discussion and we haven’t had that yet,” Chris Barnes said.
Chris Williams said that while the project may be exactly the vision for the future the town has contemplated, it has to “come from the town after consultation with residents.”
Council member Dallas Dodge said that while it’s “important to encourage growth in town and to encourage smart growth,” he had concern that the change in FAR could impact not only West Hartford Center, but also two other areas of town that are zoned BC – a portion of Elmwood and the Armory building on Farmington Avenue. “I do think that we need to take a more holistic and thoughtful approach that is town wide,” Dodge said, expressing concern that not a single Elmwood resident or business owner spoke at the hearing.
“I made statement [when the previous zoning amendment was withdrawn in April] that in West Hartford like to get it right. We work very hard to get it right and if we don’t get it right there are things we will hear from our residents quite vocally,” Deputy Mayor Leon Davidoff said.
Davidoff said that Lexham is a “quality applicant with wide portfolio of investment in our town. They take their investment in this town quite seriously,” he said, but so do the residents who abut the Center. Davidoff said he thinks that a common denominator can be reached, but it’s critical that the Council have time to do its own outreach.
“I feel that I made a promise in April that we would study this,” Davidoff said, and word is reputation. “This application preempted our ability to do that – to conduct that study and research necessary to reach a conclusion.”
During the public hearing Lexham’s attorney, Robin Pearson, outlined exactly what the proposed zoning amendment would, and would not, allow. Developers would not just be able to come in and take advantage of the increased FAR because it would require pursuing a Special Development District, and that would have to come before the Town Council and the community, she said.
Many of the buildings in West Hartford Center were built prior to modern zoning ordinances and about 28.5 percent of them are already well above 1.25 FAR, Pearson said. Others are close enough to that level that even with an increase to 1.5, it would not be possible to add a second story. “They’re all maxed out as they exist,” she said, with no realistic opportunity to take advantage of the amendment.
Pearson said that concern about allowing increased building height was the major issue that led to withdrawal of the zoning amendment proposed in April, while Lexham’s proposal was a “small modest request” in line with the town’s own Plan of Conservation and Development that would allow for the proposal of a “respectful, thoughtful well designed expensive investment in West Hartford center that has to rely on underground parking.”
Residents who spoke out against the ordinance cited a variety of factors, although some concerns surrounded the development that was neither the subject of the hearing nor the Town Council vote.
Arapahoe Road resident Scott Falk, one of the organizers of the grassroots “A Better West Hartford” organization, said he started the group a week ago when he realized that only a few hundred people had been officially notified about Lexham’s proposal. He said he spoke on behalf of the more than 350 people who had signed the petition against the proposed zoning amendment. Approximately 50 members of the group attended the hearing.
“I think we need to step back, take a look at our zoning,” said Falk, requesting an “open comprehensive process balancing the rights of all of us.”
Lisa Campo, a realtor who lives on Four Mile Road, expressed concern about encouraging residential rental development that would dilute the real estate market with people renting rather than purchasing homes. She doesn’t see increased density as a positive either. “We will be annihilating what we love about the Center,” Campo said.
The zoning proposal is a “vague modification that seems to open the floodgates for a lot,” Woodrow Street resident Robert Millburn said. “We’re not against growth but we are against this ordinance.”
Dave Meehan, also a Woodrow Street resident, said, “Three hundred and fifty people said not this, not now. Let’s have a conversation.”
Arapahoe Road resident Anna Boelitz said the Town Council’s job is to make decisions about the Town, not just support development. “We want to be part of that conversation. We’re not the enemy,” she said.
Others, including several West Hartford Center business owners, spoke in favor of the amendment.
Mike Ladden, president of McLadden Restaurant Group (McLadden’s and the soon-to-open Noble & Co.) and owner of Keller Williams Real Estate, said there’s a significant demand for housing in West Hartford Center.
Dave Louden, a Soby Drive resident who also owns marketing firm Fathom on Farmington Avenue, said there is a demand for rental housing in West Hartford Center for young professionals, who want to walk to and would support stores, restaurants, and services.
BK&CO co-owner Barbara Karsky, speaking also as president of the West Hartford Center Business Associaiton, said that while she knows the Council wouldn’t force anything on the town that wouldn’t be appropriate, “We need to be realistic that the quaint West Hartford center we know and love is changing.”
Cantor told Lexham that she greatly values their investment in the community and believes that the infill investment that the company planned to propose if the ordinance had been approved “will add to the quality of life” in West Hartford.
Cantor said that the Town Council will work quickly to engage the town in a comprehensive discussion. “I hope that this is just a pause and we keep going, but we have a little bit of work to do before we get there,” she said.
“The vote does not reflect the project. We just need a little bit more time,” Cantor said.
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