Canton Commission approves plans for apartments at 38-42 Dowd Ave.
By John Fitts
CANTON – The Canton Planning and Zoning Commission on Jan. 10 approved plans for 54 apartment units in three separate building at a 3.1-acre site on Dowd Avenue. Under the plan, two buildings would sit along Dowd Avenue, while a third would be set back on the site. The property sits just west of Canton Village Condominiums.
The application was filed by Philip Doyle of Simsbury based Landscape Architectural Design Associates on behalf of owner Frank Zacchera. However, the plan would be to sell the property to another person that would move forward with development, attorney David J. Markowitz told the commission.
In a meeting that went nearly five hours, the commission approved an earthwork and grading special permit and two separate site plans for the 38-42 Dowd Ave. site. One involves a strictly residential project. The other includes as much as 6,000 square feet of commercial space - such as retail and office - on the ground floor of the two buildings that would sit along Dowd Avenue. The total number of apartments is the same in both plans and include one- and two-bedroom units, but the configuration and size of some of the units would change depending on the final configuration.
Prior to the approval of the site plans, the commission first approved a change to a form-based code regulation footnote that - within the Canton Village Design Village District - prohibited ground floor residential of buildings that front a state road. (Dowd and Maple avenues are both part of SR 565).
The change removed that prohibition for Dowd Avenue and allows an eventual developer to pursue either site plan. However, adding residential uses to the ground floor of either of those frontage buildings would trigger the commission’s requirement that 15 percent of the units be set aside under the state’s affordability statute. While the application was originally filed in early October, before the affordability rule went into effect, the requested zoning regulation change negates that timeline for the residential only site plan since the regulations at that time included the prohibition.
If the mixed-use plan is pursued, the project would not need to include the affordability requirement as that site plan is considered a modification of the original filing that came in before the affordability requirement went into effect.
Although developers generally seek one site plan approval, often the latest on file, in opening statements to the commission, Markowitz asked that members approve both site plans.
“We would still like that opportunity,” Markowitz said of the residential only option.
Markowitz also asked that that second site plan also be approved.
“Phil Doyle will go through both site plans with you so that you can see that they’re substantively identical – the only difference being that there are commercial uses on the first floor of the two buildings that front on Dowd Avenue. And since it is a site plan …. I think it has to be approved because it, in every respect complies, with the district, and we hope to demonstrate that to you this evening.”
Doyle’s presentation included details on the regulations, the reason for the requested change as well as details about the project and the differences in the site plans.
Under the residential only plan, one frontage building would include six townhouse units and the other - four. Under the mixed-use plan, those units become one-level flats above the commercial space. The frontage buildings would be 2.5 stories (24'6" to top of wall plate).
The 3-story interior building (30'8" to top of wall plate), the same in both plans, is set at 44 units, 30 of which would be one-bedroom and the others two bedroom. Several units there would be fully accessible, and that interior building would have an elevator, applicants said. Both scenarios include 84 parking spaces – some of which would be interior. The application estimates the project would generate 2 to 3 school aged children.
Internal sidewalks would be added and connect to improved sidewalk infrastructure around Dowd Avenue, he said. The stone wall on site would be rebuilt, Doyle said. He said site work for the earthwork and grading would take 2 to 4 months, with 10 to 15 trucks a day on Dowd. He said no parking would take place on the street.
He also talked about the Plan of Conservation and Development and said the project conformed with aspects such as the idea of infill and redevelopment in the Village area. He also noted it has been identified as an opportunity site. Doyle pointed out the surrounding multi-family uses on the road, calling the site “appropriate for the type of development we’re proposing.”
Architect Todd R. Clark spoke at the meeting, closely mirroring what he had said in a report to the commission.
“Because of the road frontage being straight, the façade is aligned and designed to mimic a mill era row house,” he stated in that report. “Traditional forms and traditional style materials such as clapboard, raised panels, dormers and traditional store fronts will blend with other traditional styles nearby. The commercial spaces located on the first floor are designed to resemble vintage storefronts.”
He also talked about the barn type look for the interior building.
“The interior (44)-unit building is meant to be reminiscent of a large barn with the ends dropping down to soften the scale.” Clark stated in his report. “Because the site slopes up to the rear and setback, the larger rear building would be appropriate and not overwhelm the front streetscape. The intent is to have a larger center mass with smaller mass gables to vary the scale of the building. The driveway side of the buildings will have covered entryways over the entry doors and garage doors like a barn. Siding will vary from vertical to horizontal. The roofing will be charcoal ‘slate’ style asphalt shingles, the same as the front building. The use of dormers will keep the scale to a 3-story building.”
Stephen Giudice of Cole Civil & Survey in Plantsville talked about the technical and physical details of the stormwater management and collection system.
He said a series of catch basins and pipe network connect to an underground infiltration system.
An outlet control structure that keeps water backed up into system and allows it to infiltrate into the ground, discharges into a depression off to the west of the site – low area drainage area.
Later in the meeting, Giudice answered some additional questions that residents had raised during the public comment period.
He acknowledged that development certainly increases flows and said the site will still drain east to west but said the infrastructure is designed to put that into an underground system and store the water – allowing into to infiltrate into the ground over time, reducing the amount of water that flows off site during storm events.
“The drainage facilities that we’re proposing on the site are designed to capture that additional flow and what we’re trying to do … is to take the new flows - the high flows - and we’re trying to put them into a system - an underground system or depression - to store that water and allow that water to have time to infiltrate into the ground and reduce the amount of flows that go off the site to a level that’s less than what it does currently.”
“Water is still going in the same direction - The idea is to store that water and reduce the flows to levels lower than the existing conditions and that’s what we’ve done anywhere from 30 to 50 percent – depending on the storm event. We’re lowering those numbers,” he added, also saying that the hope was to even have a positive effect – however small – on the overall flooding issues on parts of Old Canton Road.
Scott F. Hesketh of F.A. Hesketh and Associates talked about the traffic impact study, addressing both site plans, but focusing on the mixed-use scenario, noting that the proposed trips are higher.
He talked of how he reached traffic counts and said that the site under that mixed use plan would generate an estimated 855 daily. He estimated that 60 percent of new traffic would be to and from east of the site.
Hesketh provided greater detail about traffic counts, intersection capacity, levels of service and asserted that overall impact was very minimal and sightlines to the site good.
“The proposed development, according to ITE (Institute for Transportation Engineers) data, is projected to generate a total of 62 trips and 85 trips during the morning and afternoon peak hours, respectively,” he wrote in a report to the commission. “Based on the background traffic volumes, the relatively low volume of site generated traffic during the peak hour, the anticipated directional distribution and the results of capacity analyses, it is my professional opinion that the local roadway network can accommodate the site generated traffic volumes. The proposed site driveway is properly located with respect to available intersection and sight distances and is properly designed to accommodate the anticipated driveway volumes.”
Selected Staff Comments
Neil S. Pade, the town’s director of Planning and Community Development, reviewed several aspects of the project, including a history of the idea behind prohibiting ground floor residential in the Village District – when the town was working on its form-based code that led to the Canton Village Design Village District adoption in 2018. (A form-based code emphasizes physical form, design guidelines and integration with the public infrastructure and use over the traditional zoning philosophy of strict use separation).
He noted 42 Dowd Avenue was separated from 41 Dowd in 2019 and both 38 and 42 Dowd (which would be consolidated under development) were added to the district later that year.
Pade said his recollection was that the first-floor residential prohibition in the design district was really a way to ensure that existing business frontage along Route 44 remained.
“Although people were really intrigued with trying to pursue the form-based code as a way of limiting the sprawl of junior box, and big box and national retail there was a concern in the Canton Village area, especially specifically on Route 44, that if we were to allow ground floor residential uses there that it would probably perhaps be too great incentive that you might see some of the true commercial frontage on Route 44 disappear and be replaced with ground floor residential,” Pade said.
While that led to the footnote in question, he said that it was really overlooked that Route 565 (Dowd, Maple) was also a state route, and that footnote actually made some existing multi-family on Dowd non-conforming. A move to tweak the rule got lost amidst the pandemic and other activity, officials noted.
Pade also spoke to the idea of a village look on Dowd and how the images conveying the idea resonated very well at public events leading up to the code adoption. He noted the concept of “changing the context of the roadway itself from a place that’s easy to drive through fast to a place for people
“It’s always been contrary to the people’s sensibilities that the solution to traffic, speeding and problems… is to add more people to the right of way,” Pade said. “That doesn’t seem to make sense but that’s actually a valid strategy it accepted at the federal level, the state of Connecticut buys into it, and I think we buy into it here.”
He also noted the commission has no control of the roadway but can control land use to the lot line. He shared renderings from the process that promoted a village concept along Dowd Avenue.
“These are pictures that came from the public charette that equally resonated very well in trying to change the context of this corridor of Dowd Avenue to a place – not a place that’s easy to drive through fast but a place for people,” Pade said. “I’m only just trying to show this because it was intended to try and bring that development closer to the street, infill some of those vacant lots that are along this corridor, and make it a place where you have more people, more activity and again also support the canton village area economically.”
Selected Public Comment
When it came to public comment, residents spoke about the site plan(s), stormwater retention, potential impact to town services, traffic, architecture, wetlands and more.
Certainly, traffic was one major concern of residents. Dowd Avenue Rick Frenette sent a compilation video of footage that was played back at the meeting. It was taken from his home, near the subject site and showed numerous examples of motorists traveling extremely fast – often 60 miles an hour, failing to stop for stopped school buses, illegal passing and nearly hitting pedestrians. In one case a mother had to pull back a child who had started to cross to a stopped school bus.
Frenette said the behaviors were not occasional.
“This is on a daily basis, and I just wanted to show that … When that’s happening, you can throw your line of sight out the window because it’s not going to make a difference. I think it’s a lot of issues besides the apartments that’s going on but that’s what it’s really like and I just wanted everybody to see that.”
Barbara Schori said the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development incorrectly labels Route 565 as an arterial road rather than a collector road and talked of traffic issues including large amounts of large commercial trucks using the road.
“Regardless of what it’s classified as… it’s being used as a major highway. There are absolutely no calming measures on that whole street …. The residents of maple avenue have been trying for over 35 years to calm traffic and it’s not happened and you’re now wanting to add another 400 trips per day?”
Alan Weiner of Collinsville, who served as a municipal planner for many decades, raised several points about the project and said that the application itself made the argument that the commission had likely not intended for commercial uses on that portion of Dowd Avenue.
“I think it’s kind of interesting if one is trying to make an argument for the mixed-use development that in his letter to Mr. Pade, Mr. Doyle states in part…. explaining the reason behind the proposed amendment ‘it is unlikely to the commission intended to introduce commercial uses to the frontage of Dowd Avenue west of Canton Village Condominiums,’ …. Yet they submitted a plan that showed that very thing.”
He urged the commission to not accept both site plans and decried the tactic of presenting both.
“That’s the scenario you’re halving to deal with now – two plans - pick one. My suggestion to the commission is that if you’re going to pick a plan, pick the plan that’s entirely residential …. But I strongly suggest that you not approve the plan that proposes commercial, retail and office space on the first floor in the two front buildings.”
Wetlands has been a huge issue with numerous residents taking photographs of the site and writing to the commission about the ponding water often seen there, especially after storm events. Other residents contended that the wetlands delineation was done at the wrong time of year, and many have pointed out that some maps show wetlands on the site. Other said that court cases have shown instances where soil scientists were wrong.
Developers in this case – and in others throughout the area – have said that actual wetlands delineation for specific sites is done by a certified soil scientist.
A report from soil and wetlands scientist Ian T. Cole, dated Sept. 10 is included as part of the application and asserts there are no jurisdictional wetlands on the site. The application also includes a letter from town staff to the Inland Wetlands Agency reinforcing that and staff members have noted that previous investigations of the site have shown no wetland soils and noted that the Connecticut wetlands law is different than it is in many states. The matter was also discussed by Wetlands Agency in October, officials said.
At the meeting, Cole briefly addressed the matter and said ponding water is not what determines wetland soils.
“The time of year has no bearing on doing a wetland delineation. In fact, we use soils because hydrology is the worst thing to use because it’s absent most of the time and it can occur in a wide spectrum across the landscape soils are your best indicator – eco indicator of what the conditions are – constant across the site,” he said, adding that there are outwash sandy soils that can lead to ponding in “topographic low spots.”
“At the surface layer, the soil conditions are more finely textured so you can get temporary ponding of the surfacing during the non-growing season but immediately underneath that the soils are sands and gravels and rapidly draining and because they’re so rapidly draining, the soils can never get to a reducing environment, which is necessary for soil development to be considered a hydric soil,” he said.
He also said that a soil scientist had investigated the area in 2007 and said his work was reviewed by two scientists with the North Central Conservation District.
“Overall, you’ve had four soil scientists essentially look at this property and I can completely understand that the optics of standing water is very confusing and is counterintuitive to the common person…. But it’s really a factor of the landscape.”
Matthew Dingee chairman of the Economic Development Agency, spoke in favor of the project.
“Essentially, the agency recognizes the importance of diversifying the tax base, growing the grand list and relieving the growing tax burden on single family homeowners,” he said. “We believe this project can help achieve those initiatives and also provided added vibrancy and economic activity in the old Canton Village Shops. To that end, the EDA voices its support for the project provided it conforms with the town’s plan of conservation and development.”
Links to more
From there, the commission heard again from members of the development team who clarified some issues and offering different perspectives on some aspects from what members of the public had opined.
It was near midnight -when the commission finally voted - unanimously - to approve the project. That approval become effective Feb. 5, and the approval does come with several conditions, including some designed to minimize hazards during construction and other site work, such as a stipulation that construction trucks cannot be parked along Dowd Avenue and a long list of standard conditions such as “All necessary operation and maintenance of storm water retention/ detention basins and storm water management systems shall be the responsibility of the property owner.”
The application record as of the meeting included 98 documents and 72 drawings. Anybody looking to delve further can find them at https://townofcantonct.org/agendas-minutes-meetings. Scroll down to meeting packets for land use commissions, select 2024, 01-10-24 and find the 38-42 Dowd subfolder under the special meeting option. A video recording of the meeting can also be found at the above link