High Density Zoning Was Top Of Mind For Local Leaders 50 Years Ago

High Density Zoning Was Top Of Mind For Local Leaders 50 Years Ago

If you’ve been following the headlines in The Cheshire Herald of late, you’ll know that development has been a key topic of conversation.

The town has seen a number of new residential and commercial projects approved over the last year-plus, meaning the potential for more families and more businesses. That of course is positive as it shows that Cheshire remains an attractive community in which to live and work. Business owners don’t target municipalities they believe to be struggling and home developers don’t gravitate towards areas of the state they believe to be in decline.

Yet, with all of the benefits of new development comes more questions. What kind of businesses should be endorsed and approved? How do new developments influence traffic or increase concerns over safety? In essence, how much is too much?

The Cheshire Planning and Zoning Commission recently decided to place a moratorium on all commercial development, likely to try and answer a few of these questions. They have until July to come up with an idea for how best to move the town forward — allowing for more commercial properties while still maintaining the look and feel of the community.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Cheshire has been dealing with concerns over development. Back in 1973, the issue was on the minds of local leaders as well, as highlighted by a front-page article in the April 26, 1973 edition of The Cheshire Herald. The question? What kind of residential growth pattern was right for the community:

Atty. Fred Hitt, representing the interests of developer James Welch, and PZC Chairman Clinton Newman championed widely divergent concepts of “where do we go from here?” now that sewers have become a municipal fact of life.

At issue were the town’s present low-density zoning regulations, which permit home-building on no tract smaller than half an acre. Many areas are zoned for one-acre lots; and others, two-acre. Apartment and condominium builders must observe these regulations by “dedicating” half an acre per dwelling unit, on the basis that this land is needed for leaching fields.

… Atty. Hitt said the real reason for low density is to keep down school enrollment. Mr. Newman said it is “to preserve the rural nature of the town” — an aim expressed in the town’s present Comprehensive Plan of Development, and therefore assumed to be in keeping with the desires of most townspeople.

Atty. Hitt took exception to the latter notion, claiming that “sewers make higher density mandatory, to preserve open spaces.” He urged that the Comprehensive Plan, now undergoing revision, be made to reflect this idea.

“The town should develop from the core out, as it should have when the water lines came in,” he maintained.

Hitt, according to the story, had a rather detailed view of how such development would take place in the future. Perhaps foreshadowing current trends, the local attorney believed that allowing high-density residential development would lead to concentrated areas of housing as well as numerous mixed-use properties, while broad “outlying tracts” would be used for open space.

Newman had a different feel for what would happen:

Mr. Newman observed darkly that he expected developers to try the foot-in-the-door approach, now that higher density is permitted for housing for the elderly (15 units per acre). The elderly housing regulations were painstakingly written to discourage just such a contingency.

Mr. Welch had mentioned five units per acre, or one dwelling unit per 8,000 square feet, as the degree of density he would like to employ in developing the other 20 acres of the Ely-Coleman property, 15 acres of which he wants to develop as housing for the elderly.

The issue was, according to the article, one that had been brewing for a while. In fact, many had been reluctant to approve of sewers precisely because of the impact it could potentially have on the community as a whole:

Apprehension has long been felt that, with the advent of sewers, planning and zoning would be in jeopardy. Rumors have circulated that apartment builders will go to court to get permission to build on their dedicated land.

The Thursday night debate was actually touched off by Commissioner Vincent Maida, who asked whether the purpose of high density in the regulations for elderly housing had not been defeated by Mr. Welch’s proposal. Because of the high level subsidization freeze, the elderly would be living under high density conditions without the compensating benefit of low rents.

The article went on to discuss the high cost of living, even in the elderly housing proposed in Cheshire. While the numbers seem almost absurdly low by today’s standards — $135 to $250 a month for rent — they were considerably more than what many retirees and elderly individuals were evidently desiring to pay, which was, according to The Herald, between $75 and $150 a month.

Hitt and Welch both claimed that the law of supply and demand would likely push those prices down in relatively short order, but for Newman that didn’t answer the question of how high-density development overall would impact the community, and he provided one last shot across the bow as the debate concluded:

Mr. Newman, acknowledging that builders want to build, asked how many developers had offered to construct a school to accommodate the influx of pupils generated by their projects.

There are, of course, different issues facing Cheshire at the moment. Yet, while traffic concerns were not raised in the article printed in the April 26, 1973 edition, it was a topic of conversation the previous week when another development-focused story touched on the town’s plans for commercial development. According to The Herald, Cheshire officials had decided to ask that commercial applications be “packaged” when numerous projects were planned for specific locations.

Those who expressed concern questioned how much more traffic would be created by these “bulk” projects with numerous new businesses opening, mostly along the Route 10 corridor.

Fifty years later, traffic on Route 10 remains a concern, as do enrollment numbers at local schools, as does the look and feel of the community.

Perhaps this is a debate Cheshire is destined to have over and over again throughout the decades. Perhaps it’s a good sign that each new generation of residents believes it to be a conversation worth having.


The Herald Buzz

Follow the Cheshire Herald on Facebook & Twitter