In its thoughtful, deliberative manner, the Planning and Zoning Commission has done much well as it has worked up a proposed new “Gateway Enhancement Zone” that would allow retail uses in most of the business property along Route 7 from Haviland Road north to Danbury. The proposal has laudable goals and much thought has gone into it. But as it heads into a public hearing next Tuesday, the new zone still raises concerns.
One problem is that re-introducing retail zoning in the area may invite commercial strip development; the other is that adding more retail development along Route 7 could undermine the strength of the town center and the Main Street business district.
The potential benefits of the proposal are substantial. Commission members behind the idea — as well as supporters on the Economic Development Commission and among Route 7 property owners — see revised zoning as a way to spark investment, spruce up the area, generate income for business and property owners, and add to the town’s commercial tax base.
Advocates say the proposal has been refined over the months of discussion to address the concerns. Retail uses would be capped, regardless of how big a property is, at 20,000 square feet — about the size of the Walgreens building on Danbury Road by Grove Street — to prevent “big box stores” from taking over. The zone has design and landscaping standards and calls for review of plans to guard against strip development.
But design standards have limitations — as do developers’ budgets.
Supporters say Route 7 is different from the town center — retail there could capture some of the dollars driving down the highway each day, without siphoning them away from Main Street’s “destination” shopping. But, arguably, the weakening of commercial vitality in the village parallels the growth of the retail district along Danbury Road.
The Gateway Zone is a far-reaching proposal that needs to be thoroughly aired. Members of the public will have a chance to weigh in on its pros and cons at the public hearing Jan. 15, starting at 7:30 in the town hall annex.
Typically, the commission has anticipated the major concerns, but it is far from a consensus as to how real they are, and how they stack up against the intended benefits. On several points of discussion, the commission considered making the new zone more restrictive but opted not to, figuring it would listen to the public’s views at the hearing, then resume the debate. Commissioners don’t have their minds made up, and are genuinely interested in seeing how townspeople feel.
It should be a hearing worth attending.