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Town Council Withdraws Proposal to Increase Density in West Hartford Center

West Hartford Center. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Twenty West Hartford residents attended a public hearing Monday night to discuss  proposed changes to the town’s zoning which would allow increased density in the Center.

West Hartford Center. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Center. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

By Ronni Newton

After hearing the sentiments of 20 people who attended a public hearing Monday night about a proposal to change a zoning ordinance allowing for increased density in West Hartford Center, Mayor Scott Slifka said it was clear that the Council could not vote on the ordinance.

Most of the residents who spoke lived in or near West Hartford Center, and most said they only recently became aware of the proposal and thought it needed further consideration.

With the unanimous agreement of the rest of the Council, and the assurance from Town Manager Ron Van Winkle and Corporation Counsel Joseph O’Brien that proper procedures were being followed, the proposal was withdrawn.

“I get the sense that the Council would not be comfortable moving forward on this tonight. West Hartford likes to do the right thing and we like to do it the right way,” Slifka said after hearing the public’s comments. Even if the Town Council was completely in favor of the ordinance, he said he wouldn’t feel comfortable voting after so many residents said they just became aware of the proposed change.

Because the proposal was for an ordinance change, and not a specific zoning application, there was no requirement that letters be sent out to residents. Minority Leader Denise Hall said that the Council did not think it would be as impactful as it turned out to be. “I think this does need a lot more discussion, a lot more visuals, and a lot more community involvement … I cherish way the Center looks but want to support what’s best for the community, best for business.”

Monday’s hearing was the third on the proposed change. The first hearing was held March 22, but was continued because the Town Planning and Zoning Commission had not had a chance to issue its opinion. A brief hearing was held on April 12 to accept the TPZ’s opinion – which was in favor of the ordinance – but because several Council members were absent from that meeting, which fell during school vacation week, it was continued until April 25.

The ordinance, which Town Planner Todd Dumais summarized for hearing attendees, would have allowed for buildings in zone BC – which encompasses West Hartford Center as well as a few other properties – to increase in height from three stories to five stories as long as the upper levels were residential and the top floor had a 15-foot setback from the façade of the story below it. It would have also allowed for the maximum “floor area ratio” (FAR) to be increased from 1.25 to 1.75. Any applications for development under the zoning would have to be submitted to the Town Council for approval as a special development district and specific restrictions on parking and amenities would have to be met.

Scott Falk, a resident of Arapahoe Road, said he first learned about the proposal last Thursday and then went door-to-door, speaking to residents who were previously unaware and submitting a petition against the ordinance that had more than 100 signatures. He said he’s angry, and there are a lot of other angry people out there.

“This is a plain old bad idea as it relates to our town,” Falk said. The reason the commercial district has not expanded is because there are homes there, said Falk. The Center is a “crown jewel,” he said, and developers will be willing to pay a lot of money to get their way.

John Green, a lifelong West Hartford resident whose family owns West Hartford Center and regional jeweler Lux Bond and Green, urged the Council to spend more time hearing and addressing concerns of residents and business owners. “Change is the way of the world and we need to understand that we need to embrace change,” he said, but he felt like the vote was being rushed without enough input from citizens of the community.

Green said that the issue is complicated, and needs more opportunity for debate, as well as more transparency.

Others were flat out against increasing the height of buildings, and possibly paving the way for teardowns and reconstruction. “I really feel that this is antithetical to the type of change that we need,” said North Main Street resident Michael Esernia. “This really to me just seems to be the latest in the examples of architecture that makes this town unique being threatened … We can still build for the future but there are other ways of doing it.”

Dan Matos lives in Blue Back Square and said that developers are very interested in investing in West Hartford. The problem is that the streets surrounding West Hartford Center are all heavily residential. “That’s what gives the Center its very special soft edges … we should work very hard to protect that,” he said. Matos said that residents need to be convinced that the process will be managed properly.

Speaking on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce, Executive Director Barbara Lerner, who is also a resident, said that most members of the Chamber’s economic development committee are in favor of the expanding “up in a controlled manner.”

John Simone, a resident of Grennan Road, said that there is an increased demand for young adults and Baby Boomers to live in a walkable area, but thinks the plan needs more study. “I think it’s the right idea, but we need to spend time visualizing.”

Real Estate agent and Four Mile Road resident Lisa Campo said the majority of the people she has spoken to, and most of the real estate agents she has spoke to are against the idea because the Center is “such a gem” the way it is.

Meg Sheehan of Robin Road said that West Hartford is a town, not a city, and she’s concerned with urbanization. “I beg of you not to decide tonight. give other people the chance to learn about the process,” she asked the Council.

“We always get it right. If we sense it’s not going right we stop the process,” Council member Leon Davidoff said after the proposal had been withdrawn. “We don’t try to get one by the residents.”

The discussion will be continued at some level and at some point in the future, and people need to be engaged, Davidoff said.

Slifka said that increased notice, and something more visible like the what was done when Blue Back Square was first proposed, would be helpful to residents and that they will definitely be informed of the process.

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