The Commissioner — Summer 2012

Commission Profile

Torrington Planning and Zoning Commission

By Karen Finucan Clarkson

Ethical, efficient, and expeditious, Torrington, Connecticut's planning and zoning commission "works hard — looking out for individual property owners while focusing on the betterment of the community as a whole," says Martin J. Connor, AICP, Torrington's city planner. "We have excellent commissioners who get along with each other and do their homework. They're not there to hear themselves talk but to work with the public."

Unlike in some Connecticut municipalities, the mayor appoints the five commissioners and three alternates, with concurrence by the city council. They have five-year staggered terms, a process supported by the commission's chair and vice chair. "By electing planning and zoning officials, you place them in a political atmosphere and planning and zoning should have nothing to do with politics," says 17-year commission veteran Richard Calkins, who chairs the panel.

Alternates attend commission meetings and are free to ask questions. "They participate the same as regular members, but once a public hearing is closed then only the regular members can discuss and vote on the application," explains Connor. An alternate may be tapped by the chair to vote when a regular member is absent. Both Calkins and the vice chair, Greg Mele, began their commission service as alternates.

The commission is the decision-making body for all planning and zoning matters in Torrington. "They don't make recommendations to council, they make the decisions," says Connor. "An appeal goes to the local superior court, so our commissioners understand the importance of making good decisions that can be backed up by the record."

The commission meets on the second and fourth Wednesdays, except during the summer, when meetings occur monthly. "As residents, most of us are familiar with locations for proposed projects," says Mele. "But there have been times when I've gone to city hall and researched adjacent land uses."

Connor estimates that commissioners spend about three hours prepping for every two-hour meeting. As chair, Calkins figures he invests a couple of additional hours each month. "You won't see anyone opening up an envelope while sitting at the dais," says Connor.

Calkins tries to streamline meetings, which start at 7 p.m., to the extent possible. "I like to be out by 9 o'clock," he says. "After that amount of time, you wear people out and it's not fair to applicants coming up at the end of the night."

Service on the planning and zoning commission is voluntary, and the only requirement is city residency. Each commissioner brings a unique perspective and skill set to the table, agree Calkins and Mele. The panel includes an electrical contractor, engineer, attorney, retired school teacher, and a developer with a national housing firm.

Two commissioners serve as liaisons to other boards — the Inland Wetlands Commission and the Economic Development Commission. "It really helps us out," says Connor. "Greg Mele, for example, can bring back comments from meetings of the Economic Development Commission and provide insight and explanations."

Ethical considerations are always in the minds of commissioners. In fact it wasn't until 1993, when Calkins left his job with a contractor that often had business before the commission, that he considered serving on the panel. Mele, who before his appointment occasionally appeared before the commission, now hires an attorney to handle land-use matters and recuses himself, leaving the auditorium until the issue is decided.

Mele encourages those considering serving as a commissioner to "keep an open mind. You can't take things personally or have a personal interest in any application. Stay objective and professional, and act with the community's best interest in mind."

A Focus on Downtown and Sustainability

"We're an old mill town with some brownfield sites, four of which were recently rezoned under a new incentive housing overlay zone established by the commission," says Martin Connor, Torrington's city planner. The idea is to encourage affordable housing in Torrington's downtown, "where there are transportation connections, nearby access to amenities and services, and infrastructure necessary to support concentrations of development."

A range of housing is being promoted for the downtown. Torrington, like the rest of the state, has an aging population. "Connecticut is losing that 25 to 34 cohort," says Connor. "We've got to figure out how to keep college kids in-state ... we also need to capture that cool factor—with lofts and such—to keep younger people here."

Housing is not the sole focus of Torrington's downtown redevelopment effort. "Long term, we would love to see an expansion of the commercial and industrial tax base," says commission chair Richard Calkins. Following adoption of the city's 2009 Municipal Development Plan, the commission enacted changes to the downtown's zoning regulations to encourage redevelopment that is more business- and pedestrian-friendly. Certain parking requirements were eliminated, sign regulations were updated, and seasonal outdoor sidewalk dining was permitted.

The downtown in this city of 36,000 includes a historic district and a thriving cultural center. "The Warner Theatre, a majestic movie theater built in 1931 by Warner Brothers to premiere movies, has been refurbished to the tune of $12 million and brings in $800,000 a year through plays, concerts, and other cultural activities," says Connor. "We also have a ballet company that attracts students from across the United States."

Having updated its Plan of Conservation and Development in 2010, the commission can now tweak individual chapters as necessary. "We spent a good bit of time on the plan and deliberately so," says Calkins.

Torrington's Planning & Zoning Commission also participated in the Low Impact Design Municipal Land Use Ordinance Evaluation Project administered by the state. "By incorporating low-impact development techniques into our subdivision regulations we're able to move beyond ice cube tray subdivisions," says Calkins. Low-impact development (LID) is gaining traction in the city. A new 149-unit independent and assisted living project for seniors will feature a green roof and several state-of-the-art LID stormwater treatment practices.

The Connecticut Chapter of APA invited the Torrington commission to speak last month at its Hot Topics Seminar about zoning for medical marijuana dispensaries. As the state legislature considered approving the use of medical marijuana, planning and zoning commissioners "decided it was important to get ahead of this legislation," says Connor. As a result, those wanting to open a dispensary in Torrington "are going to have to apply for an overlay or floating zone for the property. This will give the public more of an opportunity to speak to it and our commission greater discretion as to where it may be located." The new zoning regulations were in place shortly before Connecticut's governor signed the medical marijuana bill on June 1.