Housatonic Riverfront Zone Proposal Inspires Mixed Reaction

NEW MILFORD –A proposal for a Housatonic Riverfront Zone regulation in New Milford has run into opposition.  Proponents of the zone say it would encourage adaptive reuse of riverfront properties with mixed uses, provide pedestrian access to the river and economic development while complementing existing developed areas nearby.  Several who spoke at Tuesday’s Zoning Commission hearing, however, urged no change be made until the revised and updated Plan of Conservation and Development is adopted next year.  The hearing will continue May 26.

Resident Jane Gregory suggested the proposal is an economic stimulus package with some good ideas.  She said if the Dutch in the 17th century could deal with property that floods, the town should be able to deal with the Housatonic riverfront.  “Think broadly,” urged Gregory, who described successful mixed-use development along rivers in Liverpool and London, England. “New Milford could really use this vision.”  The Planning Commission recommended against the proposal May 7 but, since then, the proposal has been modified to address that panel’s concerns.  The area to be covered by the zone has been reduced to apply only to properties with a minimum 100-foot frontage on the east side of the Housatonic River, between the current ambulance barn on Young’s Field Road and the GMS Rowing property along Lower Grove Street.

“We’re willing to compromise,” said New Milford engineer Paul Szymanski, who has worked on the proposal with land-use staff, officials and his client, Hal Fischel, who owns the old Robertson Bleachery property at the south end of West Street.  “We’re open to starting small, taking one property at a time,” said Szymanski, who noted maximum residential use has been dropped to 60 percent in the proposal and a section on emergency evacuation plans added because of flooding potential.

Mayor Pat Murphy has opposed the proposal, fearing the impact it would have on commercial and industrial property.  Yet Szymanski said investors are looking at creative ways to redevelop riverfront property that is under-utilized, not compatible with the river and unattractive. Redevelopment would correct existing problems and stimulate economic development, he argued.  Elaine LaBella, the director of land protection for the Housatonic Valley Association, said the river is a wonderful asset for the town but that the proposal would allow sweeping change.  She said there’s a need for a plan to improve and enhance the river and downtown, not “a hodge podge” zone change.  “A plan would make a much better way to go about the development of the downtown,” she said, also expressing concerns for development in flood plains.

Tom McGowan, representing the Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust, urged waiting for the POCD.  “I’m not saying this idea is wrong; I’m saying the timing is wrong,” he said.  McGowan suggested zoners should be enacting a moratorium on zone changes until the new POCD is adopted, not making a major change.

Szymanski countered, however, to say people continually argue to wait — for Route 7, for sewer plant  expansion, for a plan.  “If we keep waiting… the town is not going to move forward,” he said. He remarked his client has been working with the town for four years to craft a proposal.  “It feels like a ping-pong game,” said Szymanski, who added initial attempts to develop the Fischel property were criticized as spot zoning and now opponents are suggesting this proposal is too broad.

Part of attracting new business to town may be mixed-use development, he argued, and denied the plan was encouraging sprawl as some opponents have said.  Resident Guy Peterson said the proper approach would be to withdraw the proposal and wait to see what the town plan says about the river and downtown development.

By Lynda Wellman – New Milford Spectrum

1 thought on “Housatonic Riverfront Zone Proposal Inspires Mixed Reaction”

  1. As some of you may know, this was Lynda’s last report of the Zoning Commission as she has accepted a retirement package. I wish her the best of luck in enjoying retirement and her children/grandchildren!

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