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Stonington commission holds hearing on downtown Mystic parking lot

Mystic — The Stonington Planning and Zoning Commission approved a site plan application Tuesday night to merge two lots on Cottrell and Haley streets to create a 14-space parking lot for the redeveloped Odd Fellows building.

Whaler's Inn RE LLC requested to merge the Odd Fellows lot at 11 Cottrell St. and a vacant lot at 1-3 Haley St. that formerly contained two homes. The building houses three shops — Shades of Mystic, Rochelle's and Crop hair salon — on the ground floor and four apartments on the upper two floors.

New London attorney William Sweeney, who represents Whaler's Inn RE LLC, told commission members during Tuesday's public hearing that if the parking lot meets the town's site plan requirements, then they are required to approve the application, as the commission does not have the discretion it does with other types of applications, such as special use permits. He then pointed out the project meets or exceeds all bulk and dimensional zoning requirements.

While 17 parking spots are required, only five exist now because the historical Odd Fellows building predates the establishment of zoning laws. Sweeney told the commission the new lot will help alleviate the shortage of on-street parking in downtown Mystic, which undermines the viability of the building and contributes to the frustration of business owners, visitors and residents.

Sweeney also said the lot will contain significant landscaping and a privacy fence while 42-inch-tall poles will have low-intensity lights for safety but will not illuminate the entire lot.

Commission members asked how the lot would be policed to make sure it is only used for customers and tenants.

Sweeney said it is the owners' intention to reserve the parking for the building and will develop a way to ensure that. He has stressed that it would not be used as parking for the adjacent Whaler's Inn.

Sweeney has said Whalers Inn RE LLC is a separate legal entity from the Whaler's Inn itself and another LLC that also incorporates the Whalers Inn name and owns the lot that once was home to John's Cafe. The entities have the same ownership.

The commission typically does not hold public hearings on site plan applications but decided to do so in this case because of possible interest from neighbors. It also sought comment from various town agencies.  

Commission member Fred Deichman told Sweeney that when the two homes were torn down without a 90-day waiting period, there was a promise made by the Whaler's Inn that the site would not be a parking lot. Sweeney said the inn, its owners and related entities never made such a promise.

During the hearing, Ben Tamsky,a member of the Mystic River Park Commission, read a letter from the commission in which it opposed the application, saying demolition of residential structures to create parking for a commercial use is not an appropriate use under the zoning regulations. He said the project would allow encroachment of a business zone into a residential neighborhood and set a precedent for the rest of town.

Sweeney disagreed, saying the lot is allowed under zoning as long as it is an accessory use to the use it serves.  

Jim Santos, whose home borders the property, expressed concerned about the landscaping, fencing and lighting plan. He thanked Whaler's Inn RE LLC for already making some changes he requested. Sweeney agreed to work with Santos on other changes. 

The commission attached several stipulations to its approval, such as requiring Whalers Inn RE to add trees to the north side of the site and move a fence back from the property line.     

Steve Coan, president of Mystic Aquarium and a former member of the Board of Police Commissioners, said the lot addresses long-standing need for off-street parking in downtown Mystic. He added the Whaler's Inn owners have been tremendous supporters of the community and have invested in their properties, which has benefited the downtown.

Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce President Bruce Flax also spoke in favor of the plan, saying a consultant studying downtown parking has recommended taking advantage of underutilized properties to provide needed parking. 

Several other residents supported the plan, saying it addresses the need for parking downtown.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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