Waterford PZC rejects Cohanzie School rezoning

Waterford — Town officials' plans to rezone and sell the site of the former Cohanzie elementary school were put on hold Monday night when the Planning and Zoning Commission denied a zone change that would have allowed for multifamily housing on the site.

An Atlanta-based developer had made a tentative $1 million offer to buy the approximately 10-acre site and requested the zone change in order to apply for state affordable housing development funds. That deal is now likely off the table, town officials said Monday night.

The Planning and Zoning Commission had considered the zone change — which would create an area around the school property where multifamily housing, office space and other developments could be built — at two public hearings and two meetings in October and November.

Residents in the neighborhood came out in force against the proposal, arguing that a housing development — especially one that qualified for affordable housing grants — would not "fit" in their neighborhood.

Bob Gelinas, who said he has lived near the Cohanzie school his whole life, said Monday he would be open to seeing development on the site but worried that affordable housing would bring crime in the area.

"It would segregate the neighborhood," Gelinas said.

Others said a housing development would bring traffic or decrease property values, and some criticized what they saw as a rushed attempt to rezone the site so the Atlanta developer, HF3, could apply for state housing grants.

The commission voted over several meetings to accommodate those opinions by reducing the number of housing units that would be allowed in the proposed zoning regulations.

But on Monday the commission's members voted 3-2 to deny the zoning change and continue to solicit feedback from the neighborhood's residents, acknowledging the substantial opposition they saw to the proposed regulations.

Under the plan agreed to Monday night, a small group of people who live near the school will represent the neighborhood and meet with Planning Department staff to hash out a new version of proposed regulations.

"Clearly there's a lot of people in the neighborhood who have a lot of feelings one way or another," commission member Bert Chenard said. "Rather than just hearing visceral thoughts from the neighbors about 'no, we don't want this,' I'd like to hear what they would actually propose."

Local history buffs and former students of the school have also claimed a stake in the school's future, claiming the 1923 building is a historic treasure that should not be knocked down in the interest of development. Residents in 2014 formed an organization called Save Our Cohanzie School and spoke out against razing the building.

The zoning proposal is part of the town's attempt to make the property marketable to developers after the school closed in 2008 and a development deal with a Middletown firm to buy the property and develop a 154-unit housing complex there fell through over the summer.

The town has already demolished two newer additions built onto the original 1923 structure and used grant funding to complete extensive site remediation and remove contamination on the property.

Only low-density residential buildings, or bigger single-family houses, are allowed under current zoning rules for the area. The drafted zoning district, commissioned by First Selectman Daniel Steward, would have expanded the possible uses for the property to include multifamily housing, professional offices and assisted-living facilities, among other uses.

m.shanahan@theday.com

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