Beacon Falls is steaming mad over zoning fight

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BY PAUL HUGHES REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

Beacon Falls First Selectman Gerard Smith and his town are caught up in a contentious zoning fight over a planned food distribution center 10 miles away in Middlebury.

Republican-American archives
First Selectman Gerard Smith, right, talks to Gov. Ned Lamont about the town receiving $600,000 state community connectivity grant along side town selectman Michael Krenesky on South Main Street in March 2022.

Smith said future development options are now limited for one of the few commercially developable properties in Beacon Falls because of a provision that state Rep. Bill Pizzuto, R-Middlebury, got slipped into the newly signed state budget targeting that disputed Middlebury project that Pizzuto opposes.

Beacon Falls is one of 11 other small towns that could be potentially subject to a development project size limit because of how the budget section was drafted. Others that would be affected include Thomaston and New Hartford.

“I’m just kind of baffled how they could do this,” a bewildered Smith said.

Pizzuto and other local opponents have been fighting Drubner Equities LLC over its plans to build a 670,000-square-foot food distribution center on 112 acres including the Timex world headquarters property in Middlebury located across the street from Pizzuto’s home in an upscale private housing development.

Pizzuto was able to get a provision added to the two-year, $51.1 billion budget that limited the maximum size of the specialized warehouse to 100,000 square feet on that proposed project site. This was after the Middlebury Conservation Commission approved a wetlands permit for the project.

And, moreover, now Lamont is saying perhaps he and the legislature need to repeal this state-imposed local zoning restriction in the 2024 legislative session.

“I don’t know how that sneaked in at the last moment,” he said.

STATE LAW NOW PROHIBITS land-use boards in towns with populations between 6,000 and 8,000 people from approving the siting, construction, permitting, operation, or use of a warehouse or distribution center located on certain parcels of land with a building footprint that exceeds 100,000 square feet

This is the part that potentially entwined the 11 other towns in the Middlebury zoning fight because all fall with that population range. According to the controlling 2020 census, Beacon Falls had a population of 6,000.

In addition to Beacon Falls, Thomaston and New Hartford, the other towns that meet the population requirement are Durham, Easton, Essex, Killingworth, Lebanon, Marlborough, Old Lyme, and Westbrook.

There are three other criteria that were crafted to apply to the proposed site of the Drubner project in Middlebury. The square footage limit on warehouse and distribution facilities applies to a parcel or parcels of land that are less than 250 acres, contain more than five acres of wetlands, and are situated within two miles of an elementary school.

The prohibition on warehouses and distribution centers of greater than 100,000 square feet would only apply to properties in the 11 other towns that meet all these other statutory standards.

SMITH IDENTIFIED ONE PROPERTY in Beacon Falls that checks all three boxes — a 30-acre parcel on Lopus Road in an industrial zone

Smith reported that a developer inquired last year about constructing a 330,000-square-foot trucking terminal there, but did not proceed.

“This space is perfect that for that development,” he said.

If the developer were to reconsider the site now, Smith lamented that the project could not be built there because of the zoning restriction that the legislature and Lamont enacted

“It was specifically targeted for one project, obviously,” he said.”Here we are paying the penalty for something we absolutely had nothing to do with, and what do you do? I hope people see what their legislators did at least in the 12 towns.”

The House approved the budget bill 139-12, and the Senate vote was 35-1. All 13 “no” votes were Republicans. Both legislators representing Beacon Falls supported the budget, Rep. Nicole Klarides-Ditria, R-Seymour, and Sen. Jorge Cabrera, D-Hamden.

BEACON FALLS IS A SMALL TOWN of slightly less than 10 square miles, and the terrain there is hilly and rocky, and two-thirds of the town is forested.

“I don’t have a lot of buildable land. I’ve got a big state forest in town. I have got limited commercial and industrial space in town,” Smith said.

He said he is always looking to attract commercial and industrial development to Beacon Falls to help raise more property taxes. This is what makes the state-imposed size limit on warehouses and distribution centers so vexing to him.

“I think it is an overreach for the state to get involved in local land-use. Nobody knows what is best for Beacon Falls but Beacon Falls,” Smith said. “Nobody who has never been here can tell me what we should have, and where we should have it, and how we should have it. That’s what my town planner, my Planning and Zoning commission, my wetlands commission, and, ultimately, me are here for.”

Lamont agreed with Smith, raising the possibility repealing the state-imposed zoning restriction in the 2024 legislative session in remarks to reporters Thursday just three days after signing the budget bill that contained Pizzuto’s requested provision in its 832 pages and 425 sections

But it was Lamont’s desire for a big bipartisan vote on the budget that put Pizzuto in a position to press his request, and the willingness of legislative leaders to go along with the request that made it happen.

LAMONT RECALLED HOW LEGISLATORS vigorously defended local zoning control during the legislature’s contentious deliberations on proposed affordable housing reforms, including a nearly eight hour Republican filibuster in the Senate on a watered-down version of the reform bill on final day of the legislative 2023 session.

“Here they put in a provision that has the state telling all these towns what they can and can’t do in this case with a distribution facility. It should be left up the towns, absolutely,” Lamont said.

When asked what he could do about the zoning restriction now, he replied, “Unwind it in the next session.” But he also clarified that a repeal was not actively under consideration at this time.

To add to Smith’s frustrations over the zoning restriction, he said the state took four premium industrial lots for the long planned and stalled Valley Regional Fire Training School in Beacon Falls.

Smith said he has been trying to get the state government to relinquish ownership if the fire training school is not going to be built, but his entreaties have been ignored.

“I am losing revenue to the tune of $150,000 to $200,000 a year, which I desperately need, and these lots are sitting there just empty, and they are buildable, shovel-ready lots,” he said.

Beacon Falls has a grand list of taxable properties of $633.5 million and town budget of $9.5 million for the upcoming fiscal year.

A bill proposing to convey the four lots from the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection was introduced again this year, but received no committee hearing or vote.

“My economic development commission is looking for partners to come to Beacon Falls. We have these spaces and the state is letting them sit here and grow weeds literally,” Smith said.