Norwich to allow gas stations next to one another

Norwich — Gasoline stations can be proposed now within 1,000 feet of one another after the City Council on Monday eliminated a separation rule that had been in place for 50 years.

Following a nearly two-hour contentious public hearing Monday, the City Council, which serves as the zoning board, voted 5-2 in favor of a zoning text change to eliminate the separation requirement.

The application for the change was filed by Cumberland Farms Inc., which plans to submit a proposal for a gas station/convenience store at 684 W. Main St., a long-vacant property with a derelict building of a former motor vehicle service station at the busy New London Turnpike intersection.

Although the zoning hearing officially pertained to the regulation change, which would apply citywide, the specific proposal for the Cumberland Farms dominated the argument. Attorney Joseph Williams, representing Cumberland Farms, displayed a rendering of the proposed building, and a project traffic engineer and a design engineer spoke on behalf of the project.

Williams also noted that in at least two other locations in Norwich, gas stations have been built much closer than 1,000 feet from one another, including three on West Town Street and two on West Main Street a short distance from the New London Turnpike intersection.

In opposition, attorney Harry Heller said he represented three companies that each own one gas station in Norwich, including the Mobil station/convenience store at 489 New London Turnpike, diagonally across West Main Street from the proposed Cumberland Farms site.

Heller repeatedly reminded the council that the regulation change would apply citywide. He argued that the original zoning regulation was enacted 50 years ago for public safety reasons, and those issues still apply.

Attorney Paul Geraghty, also representing clients opposed to the change, said the City Council should reject it because it clearly was aimed at one specific site, the Cumberland Farms plan. Other speakers said the heavy traffic on West Main Street would worsen with a new project on the corner, adding to the safety hazards.

But Williams said the proposed Cumberland Farms would improve safety, because drivers needing to stop for gas or convenience grocery items could choose the location on their right — whether it be the Mobil station heading westbound or the new Cumberland Farms heading eastbound — reducing dangerous left turns that cause many accidents on the strip called “Crash Alley.”

The proposal by the state Department of Transportation to redesign much of West Main Street, with six roundabouts, including one at the New London Turnpike intersection, was mentioned only briefly Monday. The City Council voted earlier this year to reverse its initial endorsement of the DOT plan and recommend the state find an alternative method to improve safety on the commercial street.

Aldermen in favor of the zoning regulation change said it was time to address the archaic 50-year-old regulation. They said the zoning regulation change was only the first step. The Commission on the City Plan would have to hold a public hearing on a special permit needed for any project. Issues such as traffic, compatibility with the neighborhood and design issues could be addressed.

Alderwoman William Nash said looking around the city, keeping a separation for gas stations would be incongruous.

“Given the history of this city, we don’t have a problem with putting gas stations next to gas stations, Starbucks next to Dunkin Donuts, next to Bakers’ Dozen,” Nash said.

But Alderwoman Joanne Philbrick, who voted against the regulation change along with Alderwoman Stacy Gould, used the same scenario to argue against the zoning change. She said it would just cause denser, not smarter development.

c.bessette@theday.com

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