GROTON — The schedule for official review of a proposed Mixed-Use Floating Zone has been changed to give more time to the Office of Planning and Development Services, the Planning Commission and the Zoning Commission to do their work on the proposal.

The Zoning Commission originally was scheduled to hold a public hearing June 6, 2007, on the proposal, which would require a Zoning Regulation amendment.

Michael J. Murphy, head of the town’s Office of Planning and Development Services, told a Planning Commission meeting May 22 that the previously scheduled June 6 Zoning Commission meeting has been cancelled and will be replaced by a meeting June 27. Meanwhile, he said, OPDS staff will complete their review of the amendment initiative, which he said could undergo some alteration by mid-June. He presumably was referring to the time when the June 27 hearing on the proposal must be publicly advertised.

Among other preliminary work that needs to be completed is the Zoning Commission’s referral of the proposed amendment to the Planning Commission for an opinion. In the event of a negative Planning Commission opinion, the amendment would need to pass the Zoning Commission by a supermajority, rather than a simple majority.

The new timing apparently means that the main Planning Commission discussion of the Floating Zone proposal, by L&L Groton LLC, of Old Lyme, will take place at the next PC meeting, June 12. It could extend to the June 26 session, as well.

The Planning Commission heard a short preliminary presentation on the referral at its May 22 meeting. Atty. Timothy Bates, representing L&L Groton, reviewed the plan and its goals in general terms: to break the pattern of strip malls and standardized subdivisions and to mix housing and commercial development in village-like settings. This “New Urban” vision would apply both in certain nodes identified by the 2002 Plan of Conservation and Development and in the large Industrial Park zones north and south of I-95. Six-story buildings would be allowed in the Floating Zones, subject to town approval.

Earlier, during the Public Communications portion of the meeting, GOSA had expressed general approval of the idea when applied to the nodes. However, GOSA urged that the IP zones be left out of the amendment. Mr. Bates played down GOSA concerns that the regulations could lead to side-by-side compact developments in the 700+ vacant or underdeveloped acres of the IP zones. However, he said he was willing to work with GOSA to deal with its concerns.

Following is the text of a GOSA letter, signed by President Priscilla W. Pratt, to the Planning Commission that was read in part to the commission during the Public Communications portion of the meeting. GOSA’s reading was cut short after an estimated nine minutes by Acting Chairman Jeffrey C. Pritchard, who cited the commission’s heavy agenda. GOSA handed out written copies of the letter to commission members.

You have been asked by the Zoning Commission to make a recommendation on a proposal for creation of a so-called Mixed-Use (MX) Floating Zone. The applicant is L&L Groton LLC, which is based in Old Lyme.

GOSA believes this proposed zoning amendment, if implemented as written, could change the character of Groton forever for the worse.

We believe it would contravene the land-use intent of the 2002 Plan of Conservation and Development.

The amendment would encourage intense development of hundreds of acres of currently forested and unoccupied land north and south of I-95. Development could include construction of six-story buildings for apartments and neighborhood businesses.

GOSA believes the Old Lyme developer’s plan for Groton would lead to expensive demands on public services, heavier traffic, less money for public purposes, and a diminished quality of life for all residents of Groton.

All these results would work against attracting the kind of high-end institutional and business assets that Groton wants.

The amendment contains some interesting and positive ideas from the “New Urbanism,” and the applicant is to be complimented for bringing this new kind of thinking to Groton. The amendment would be constructive if limited to the “nodes” identified by the POCD. In those nodal areas, we in GOSA could only welcome such goals as compact, walkable development that emphasizes people over cars, design standards and the avoidance of strip malls. This would be particularly true in the downtown, which offers dramatic opportunities for the kind of infill development that the POCD urges (See Item 12, P. 100 of the POCD).

However, if the Old Lyme company has its way, the amendment also would apply to the Industrial Park zones, where the impact would be harmful and wasteful of potential.

The Industrial Park zones, which lie between Flanders Road and Route 117 both north and south of I-95, encompass nearly 1,200 acres, according to figures we received from the Office of Planning and Development Services. As of the POCD’s publication, more than 700 of these acres were vacant or underdeveloped.

The land is rugged and beautiful, marked by hill and valley, dense woods, wetlands, vernal pools, stone walls and Fort Hill Brook, which flows into Mumford Cove. From at least one hill, a hiker can glimpse the Fishers Island Sound. Many trails through the area testify to recreational use.

What does the POCD foresee for this land? Well, north of I-95, it says (P. 106) that “close to 500 acres of business-zoned land could be made available to a single user. While the topography is dramatic, the opportunity does exist to develop a campus-like environment.”

The zoning amendment before you would allow creation of a new “town” — the word Atty. Bates used in an April 12 news story in The Day — on any tract of 25 acres or more in the IP zones. How many 25-acre “towns” could be crammed into 700 acres if the land could be tamed by massive blasting? Or how large a “town” could be created by combining parcels?

This zoning amendment would allow a use far more environmentally objectionable than that foreseen by the POCD–and one that would be far less favorable financially to the town.

One of the central ideas of the New Urbanism is to promote compact development that saves other land. But the proposed amendment would simply allow one compact development to sit cheek to jowl with another. It lacks any detailed and convincing provisions to save space through compact design.

Please note that the Floating Zone application prescribes far less exacting standards for the non-nodal zones in the Industrial Park area than for nodal zones. The application says “the arrangement, scale, design, intensity and phasing of uses within non-nodal MX zones need not be consistent with the design themes applicable to nodal MX zones.” That is a big loophole.

The Floating Zone amendment is not a specific project but a description of a zone that could alight on any contiguous 3 acres in a node or any 25 contiguous acres in the IP district. If you want to see an actual application of the Floating Zone idea, have a look at the attached April 12 article from The Day. It describes a 33-acre “town” that would be built at the corner of Routes 117 and 184 by the applicant under the Floating Zone amendment. (This is a node, by the way.)

The apartments that would be built in the Industrial Park areas could cost the town a lot of money in services. POCD Booklet #20, entitled “Groton Tax Impact Analysis,” shows why. It estimates that for each tax dollar contributed by apartment use of land, $2.46 is paid out in services (P. 3). A major business or industrial user, on the other hand, could be expected to make a strong positive net contribution to the town’s finances.

It may be objected that the major users sought by Groton simply haven’t materialized. That could change, and we shouldn’t give up. A revitalized downtown and some affordable rail commuting options could allow the town to aim higher, environmentally and financially, than intense residential development of this valuable land. The heavy residential option, raising the specter of rows of six-story buildings arrayed north and south of I-95, seems shortsighted and defeatist.

GOSA, being concerned with open space, is especially distressed by this plan not only because it lacks convincing environmental protections but also because it’s being proposed at a time when official Groton is virtually inactive in open space protection. The Conservation Commission has a list of 19 properties that ought to be protected. However, a number of these either already have been assigned to other purposes or have been acquired by developers as the town has sat idle. GOSA recently suggested adding several properties in the IP zones to the list.

The POCD assigned a No. 1 priority to establishing, expanding and connecting greenbelts. It mentioned a Strategic Economic Development Plan but assigned no priority to it. Yet the 2006 Strategic Economic Development Plan is being used by the applicant to justify a major intensification of development. We think action to protect open space should precede any sweeping new development program because open space is the priority of the people of Groton, as expressed in the POCD, and because it has been neglected. Conservation and Development should remain in balance.

It costs some money to protect open space, although Groton is eligible for 65% state grants for that purpose. Once protected, such land costs the town next to nothing in services. It enhances the town’s quality of life. The most desirable towns and cities of the future will be those that hang on to enough of their natural resources to offer residents the opportunity for outdoor enjoyment, inspiration and relaxation.

Think how much Haley Farm State Park and Bluff Point State Park and Coastal Reserve add to the town of Groton. More needs to be done. At present, only 11% of Groton’s 20,325 acres are securely preserved (see POCD Booklet #11. P. 1), well below the 22% goal that the state envisions. Adding tax-negative apartments would be certain to diminish funds available for protecting properties that, once lost, are gone forever.

Groton’s splendid natural assets and their accompanying opportunities are ours to lose.

Summing up: this amendment would be positive for the town if applied only to the nodal zones. The downtown area, in particular, could benefit. However, the loose and far-reaching provisions for a Floating Zone in the hundreds of acres comprising the Industrial Park would be damaging and shortsighted. Therefore, we urge that the Planning Commission recommend firmly against passage of the amendment as written.

Schedule For Floating Zone Consideration Changed

You have been asked by the Zoning Commission to make a recommendation on a proposal for creation of a so-called Mixed-Use (MX) Floating Zone. The applicant is L&L Groton LLC, which is based in Old Lyme.

GOSA believes this proposed zoning amendment, if implemented as written, could change the character of Groton forever for the worse.

We believe it would contravene the land-use intent of the 2002 Plan of Conservation and Development.

The amendment would encourage intense development of hundreds of acres of currently forested and unoccupied land north and south of I-95. Development could include construction of six-story buildings for apartments and neighborhood businesses.

GOSA believes the Old Lyme developer’s plan for Groton would lead to expensive demands on public services, heavier traffic, less money for public purposes, and a diminished quality of life for all residents of Groton.

All these results would work against attracting the kind of high-end institutional and business assets that Groton wants.

The amendment contains some interesting and positive ideas from the “New Urbanism,” and the applicant is to be complimented for bringing this new kind of thinking to Groton. The amendment would be constructive if limited to the “nodes” identified by the POCD. In those nodal areas, we in GOSA could only welcome such goals as compact, walkable development that emphasizes people over cars, design standards and the avoidance of strip malls. This would be particularly true in the downtown, which offers dramatic opportunities for the kind of infill development that the POCD urges (See Item 12, P. 100 of the POCD).

However, if the Old Lyme company has its way, the amendment also would apply to the Industrial Park zones, where the impact would be harmful and wasteful of potential.

The Industrial Park zones, which lie between Flanders Road and Route 117 both north and south of I-95, encompass nearly 1,200 acres, according to figures we received from the Office of Planning and Development Services. As of the POCD’s publication, more than 700 of these acres were vacant or underdeveloped.

The land is rugged and beautiful, marked by hill and valley, dense woods, wetlands, vernal pools, stone walls and Fort Hill Brook, which flows into Mumford Cove. From at least one hill, a hiker can glimpse the Fishers Island Sound. Many trails through the area testify to recreational use.

What does the POCD foresee for this land? Well, north of I-95, it says (P. 106) that “close to 500 acres of business-zoned land could be made available to a single user. While the topography is dramatic, the opportunity does exist to develop a campus-like environment.”

The zoning amendment before you would allow creation of a new “town” — the word Atty. Bates used in an April 12 news story in The Day — on any tract of 25 acres or more in the IP zones. How many 25-acre “towns” could be crammed into 700 acres if the land could be tamed by massive blasting? Or how large a “town” could be created by combining parcels?

This zoning amendment would allow a use far more environmentally objectionable than that foreseen by the POCD–and one that would be far less favorable financially to the town.

One of the central ideas of the New Urbanism is to promote compact development that saves other land. But the proposed amendment would simply allow one compact development to sit cheek to jowl with another. It lacks any detailed and convincing provisions to save space through compact design.

Please note that the Floating Zone application prescribes far less exacting standards for the non-nodal zones in the Industrial Park area than for nodal zones. The application says “the arrangement, scale, design, intensity and phasing of uses within non-nodal MX zones need not be consistent with the design themes applicable to nodal MX zones.” That is a big loophole.

The Floating Zone amendment is not a specific project but a description of a zone that could alight on any contiguous 3 acres in a node or any 25 contiguous acres in the IP district. If you want to see an actual application of the Floating Zone idea, have a look at the attached April 12 article from The Day. It describes a 33-acre “town” that would be built at the corner of Routes 117 and 184 by the applicant under the Floating Zone amendment. (This is a node, by the way.)

The apartments that would be built in the Industrial Park areas could cost the town a lot of money in services. POCD Booklet #20, entitled “Groton Tax Impact Analysis,” shows why. It estimates that for each tax dollar contributed by apartment use of land, $2.46 is paid out in services (P. 3). A major business or industrial user, on the other hand, could be expected to make a strong positive net contribution to the town’s finances.

It may be objected that the major users sought by Groton simply haven’t materialized. That could change, and we shouldn’t give up. A revitalized downtown and some affordable rail commuting options could allow the town to aim higher, environmentally and financially, than intense residential development of this valuable land. The heavy residential option, raising the specter of rows of six-story buildings arrayed north and south of I-95, seems shortsighted and defeatist.

GOSA, being concerned with open space, is especially distressed by this plan not only because it lacks convincing environmental protections but also because it’s being proposed at a time when official Groton is virtually inactive in open space protection. The Conservation Commission has a list of 19 properties that ought to be protected. However, a number of these either already have been assigned to other purposes or have been acquired by developers as the town has sat idle. GOSA recently suggested adding several properties in the IP zones to the list.

The POCD assigned a No. 1 priority to establishing, expanding and connecting greenbelts. It mentioned a Strategic Economic Development Plan but assigned no priority to it. Yet the 2006 Strategic Economic Development Plan is being used by the applicant to justify a major intensification of development. We think action to protect open space should precede any sweeping new development program because open space is the priority of the people of Groton, as expressed in the POCD, and because it has been neglected. Conservation and Development should remain in balance.

It costs some money to protect open space, although Groton is eligible for 65% state grants for that purpose. Once protected, such land costs the town next to nothing in services. It enhances the town’s quality of life. The most desirable towns and cities of the future will be those that hang on to enough of their natural resources to offer residents the opportunity for outdoor enjoyment, inspiration and relaxation.

Think how much Haley Farm State Park and Bluff Point State Park and Coastal Reserve add to the town of Groton. More needs to be done. At present, only 11% of Groton’s 20,325 acres are securely preserved (see POCD Booklet #11. P. 1), well below the 22% goal that the state envisions. Adding tax-negative apartments would be certain to diminish funds available for protecting properties that, once lost, are gone forever.

Groton’s splendid natural assets and their accompanying opportunities are ours to lose.

Summing up: this amendment would be positive for the town if applied only to the nodal zones. The downtown area, in particular, could benefit. However, the loose and far-reaching provisions for a Floating Zone in the hundreds of acres comprising the Industrial Park would be damaging and shortsighted. Therefore, we urge that the Planning Commission recommend firmly against passage of the amendment as written.