Letter: School neighbors should be informed regarding Municipal Use Zone proposals

To the Editor:

A few things seemed clear from the very informative P&Z meeting on April 11 regarding the Commission’s Municipal Use Zone proposals.

• Creating a new Municipal Use Overlay Zone and applying it to all the schools is not necessary to avoid the variance issues encountered when building Darien High School. P&Z already has the tool it needs–the existing Municipal Use Floating Zone.
• Currently, the Town can request on a case-by-case basis to have a property designated as a Municipal Use Zone, as has successfully been done for several properties (like the Library).
• Nothing was said that questioned the efficacy of the current tool or identified a need for the proposed changes (other than “flexibility”).
• A local attorney made the observation that granting Municipal Use status for a property in advance of a project could actually make it more difficult for P&Z to withhold the various reduced requirements when a concrete project comes along.
• The impact of the Municipal Use Zone flexibility can be quite dramatic, even today (e.g., in an R-2 area it could reduce setback requirements from 100 feet to 8 feet).
• Only our first selectman spoke in favor of adopting a blanket Municipal Use Overlay Zone covering all school properties. All members of the public who spoke on this issue urged P&Z to stick with the current arrangement requiring the Town to justify the need for Municipal Use Zone on a case by case basis, emphasizing that schools are in much more residential settings than prior Municipal Use projects.

While flexibility for our Town officials may make development a bit easier in the future, that flexibility arguably has a trade-off by diminishing protections for property owners. There are times when a politician’s view of what is “best” clashes with the interests of property owners most affected by that “best”. Better to require our Town officials to make the case for more flexible zoning when they can present a concrete project to actual neighbors, particularly given the significant reduction in protections that can come with a Municipal Use Zone designation. This will be discussed again at the May 14 Planning & Zoning meeting.

Paul Michalski