Pause half-baked Norwich industrial park plan
The Norwich City Council should push the pause button on a proposed zone change that would create a second industrial park in the city, this one in the village of Occum.
The Norwich Community Development Corp. is pursuing the park, noting the existing industrial park in Norwichtown is nearing capacity and what land remains has limitations.
On Monday, the Norwich City Council, which also serves as the zoning board, will hold a zoning public hearing at 7:30 p.m. at Kelly Middle School auditorium on NCDC’s proposed Business Master Plan District for the property.
The Occum proposal has considerable merit. The 384 acres where it is proposed are accessible to Interstate 395. Industrial and commercial development there would broaden the tax base, easing the burden on homeowners, while creating jobs. It would boost the potential for Norwich to take advantage of economic growth opportunities, including subcontractors feeding into submarine development at Electric Boat and the budding wind-power industry planned in the Northeast.
But more assurances are necessary that existing residents and property owners are adequately protected.
A consultant hired by the city’s Planning Department, Donald Poland, told the Planning Commission that the master development plan and zoning change proposal is “90% there,” but the 10% not there is highly significant. These details include what building height restrictions will be in place to prevent massive structures that loom over the village, the extent of required buffers to insulate the industrial park from residential properties, and how light pollution will be mitigated.
Given these questions, it was somewhat surprising to see the Planning Commission send a favorable recommendation about the proposed zoning changes to the City Council. In Norwich, the council also serves as the zoning board (that these duties should be severed from the council is for another day and another editorial).
The commission’s message to the council was, essentially, you figure it out. It “strongly urges” the council to clarify requirements “that are ambiguous such as signage, lighting, parking, etc.”
Commission member Kathy B. Warzecha had the better idea. She sought to table the matter so that the Planning Commission could get more information from the NCDC and require it to make clear how these critical matters will be addressed. With those items clarified, and adequate protections in place, the commission could have then forwarded the proposal to the council.
The commission should have heeded the concerns of this experienced planner. Warzecha once worked in the Norwich planning department and has long served as the town planner in neighboring Preston. Instead, by a 3-2 vote, the commission defeated the motion to table and forwarded its qualified recommendation to the council.
Next Monday the council, acting as the zoning board, will hold a public hearing, starting at 7:30 p.m. at Kelly Middle School. It is expected the council will hear from Occum residents that their concerns have not been addressed. These are folks who invested in that community. Their worries as to how their quality of life and the value of their properties will be impacted should not be dismissed.
The council’s best course of action may be to send the matter back to the Planning Commission and ask it to work with the NCDC and the Department of Planning to make sure adequate safeguards are in
place, before returning the matter to the council for final action. The council need not accept a half-baked recommendation.
Calls for a second industrial park raise a key question about the first. Twenty-seven years ago the city, needing to act fast, used prime industrial land in the park to build a baseball stadium. It was never an ideal spot or an ideal use of the land. But Senator Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium had some great years hosting minor league baseball teams. But those days are almost certainly over. Small crowds now gather to watch amateur baseball, surrounded by thousands of empty seats.
The council should ask the NCDC to evaluate whether it makes more sense to incur the cost of razing the stadium and make the property again available for industrial development, or to leave it as a sports venue. It could then deliver its conclusions, with a list of pros and cons, to the council.
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