By Dave Moran
As published in the Record Journal Tuesday January 26, 2010
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Should town open Interchange Zone to retail outlets?
WALLINGFORD— Would allowing retail development in the town’s Interchange (or I-5) Zone, an area around Interstate 91’s Exit 15 that is zoned to encourage construction of office buildings and corporate headquarters, hurt downtown retailers?
The Planning and Zoning Commission and advocates and opponents of the proposed amendment to the town’s zoning regulations, argued that question in a special workshop meeting of the PZC Monday.
The area, 365 acres zoned for development in 1984, is home to several hotels and office buildings, including Bristol- Myers Squibb; Bristol-Myers Squibb’s pharmaceutical research center, the town’s largest taxpayer; and the vacant 350,000-square-foot Campus at Greenhill at Leigus Road and Route 68, on which the town recently began foreclosure proceedings.
Joan Molloy, a local attorney representing several land owners in the zone who are pushing for the amendment, said that allowing retail would make the large, undeveloped parcels in the zone more attractive to potential developers.
“There’s been no interested buyer on any of these parcels for years,” Molloy said. “That’s the problem.”
Molloy argued that, since the zone is right off the highway, and partially visible from I-91, most of the customers who would patronize the businesses would not be likely to go downtown to begin with.
Raymond Gradwell, a senior project manager at BL Cos., a design and engineering firm headquartered on Research Parkway, who also spoke in favor of the amendment, noted that the zone is only 30 percent occupied, but that occupancy amounted to $6.5 million in tax revenue for the 2008-09 fiscal year. If 30 percent more of the zone were to be developed, he argued, the town could expect an additional $6.5 million in taxable revenue.
“That $6.5 million is a lot of teaching positions,” Gradwell said, making note of the school system’s budget proposal, which eliminates about 55 teaching positions.
Although most of the members present said they would oppose an amendment that would allow for “big-box stores” or some sort of a strip mall development in the zone, almost all said they were open to discussing the possibility of a zoning amendment.
“I definitely can say, my position on the (Interchange Zone) is (that) I would always be happy to entertain some sort of discussion out there, some sort of a change,” said PZC Chairman James Fitzsimmons, “because it has been sort of stagnant.”
However, several residents expressed concern over the proposed amendment.
James Wolfe, speaking for the town’s Economic Development Commission, said that retail stores are typically taxed at a lower rate than corporate offices, because they have less personal property.
“Unless you allow that type of big-box store, you’re not going to get that type of tax revenue,” Wolfe said. “I don’t want anybody to feel that the (Economic Development Commission) has these blinders on and we can’t see what’s going on around us, because we are open to change, but not on the scale that’s being proposed.”
Craig Fishbein, an attorney and Republican member of the Town Council who lives in the area, said allowing for greater development of the zone would also potentially increase crime. “It’s not time to sell the farm just because the Board of Education is having a problem with money,” Fishbein said. “That’s not good planning.”
The commission agreed to continue the discussion at another workshop meeting in March and to invite the Economic Development Commission to participate.
“Clearly, let’s keep talking about it,” Fitzsimmons said.