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East Lyme — A proposed zoning change that would advance Gateway Commons, the sweeping retail and commercial development proposed for the heart of Flanders, sparked opposition at a public hearing Thursday night from residents who live near the site.
In March, a Bridgeport developer announced plans to bring multi-pronged development to a 167-acre parcel between Exits 73 and 74 of Interstate 95. The earliest phase would include a senior community and a shopping center with village-style shops and a large anchor store.
Current regulations regarding the so-called Gateway Planned Development District — an area the town has eyed for development for years — specify that no store can occupy more than 20,000 square feet. The proposed amendment would allow special permits for larger buildings, making the district more attractive to so-called big-box retailers.
William J. Schwartz, the developer, said Thursday that he has stoked the interest of a “very upscale company — not a Wal-Mart or something like that” — that needs 136,000 square feet of retail space. Without a large retailer, Schwartz said, he would not be able to leverage funding to build the road that would open up the parcel, which is now largely inaccessible.
In a letter to the commission, First Selectman Wayne Fraser noted that other developers have retreated from the property because of the cost of building a road through the Gateway district — estimated at between $4 million and $8 million –– that eventually would connect Route 161 and Route 1. He said he supported the arrival of a large retailer that would help bankroll changes to the infrastructure.
“Without this, we will never secure the grand list growth we expect and need for this community,” Fraser said in the letter.
The audience at Thursday night's hearing, however, balked at the mention of a big-box store.
Bart Gullong said “vanilla box” chains do not exist harmoniously with independent tenants. “When you put in a large anchor, you don't lease the balance to mom-and-pop stores,” he said on an audiotape of the public hearing.
Under current regulations, retail stores — including restaurants, coffee shops and service establishments — can consume no more than 30 percent of the Gateway district. Lifting the 20,000-square-foot limit would mean less space for small local businesses.
Gullong suggested that the commission review a detailed site plan before amending the regulations, but commission members said they cannot review a regulation change and a site plan at the same time.
Schwartz has options on more than 167 acres but has not submitted a site plan to the town.
Some residents were concerned that the proposed change to the Gateway regulations would fundamentally alter the nature of the development the town envisioned for the area several years ago.
When the special Gateway zoning was adopted, resident Rocco Tricarico said during the hearing, “Mr. Fraser went on the record as saying the GPDD was to preserve the quality of life here, not to attract a large box. ... You cannot do the zone change without changing the purpose of the GPDD.”
In the face of public concern, the commission deferred a decision on the regulations. The commission did approve regulation changes that would give the town the authority to review architectural features before approving a new development.
“If you read the regulations, there are a tremendous amount of architectural requirements,” commission member Norman Peck III told the audience.
The commission also amended regulations pertaining to the senior community Schwartz has proposed near the Gateway area.
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