Judge hears arguments in zoning appeal for historic complex
By John Fitts
HARTFORD – A superior court judge on Feb. 15 heard arguments around land-use changes that could affect any future plans to redevelop the Collins Company Axe factory complex.
In August of 2021, the Canton Planning and Zoning Commission made changes in the Industrial Heritage (IH1) zone that regulates redevelopment of the complex, which was once headquarters for the Collins Company, a world-famous manufacturer of edge tools. Today, numerous small businesses thrive in some of the buildings on the property, but many structures are in various states of decay.
The IH Zone, approved in 1999 and periodically updated, is designed to curate potential redevelopment of the property. Underlying Canton zoning regulations are still in effect if not modified by the zone.
The 2021 changes for the IH1 zone, known as a text amendment, also included an updated master plan, a general visualization of a how a development could look. The changes did not entail construction level site details. That would come in a specific site plan application.
In August of 2021, the commission adopted, with some tweaks, most of the changes requested by Sheldon Stein of New York-based Ranger properties who, at the time, was planning to redevelop the factory.
In September of 2021, Tyler Nye of Scranton, Pa., who owns 15-17 Spring St. in Collinsville - a property that borders the complex –filed an administrative appeal, alleging the commission acted “illegally, arbitrarily, or capriciously and abused its discretion” in making the changes and didn’t consider potential “negative effects” or “feasible and prudent alternatives.”
And while Stein is not pursuing the project and is no longer a defendant in the case, those changes are still on the books and therefore, the appeal continued.
Nye’s attorney, Graham W. Moller of Cramer and Anderson in New Milford, made reference to several changes during the court proceeding, such as the reduction of district property boundary setbacks from 30 to 10 feet – a change the appeal says “statutorily aggrieved” Nye. In court, however, many of Moller’s arguments, however, hinged on special permit requirements.
During the 2021 Planning and Zoning Commission meetings, members of Stein’s development team proposed changes in the zone to “clarify” that special permits referenced in other zoning sections are not needed for the IH1 zone.
A special permit, under zoning law, differs from an “as of right” use. The “as of right” uses can generally be approved by zoning with a site plan application, provided a proposal meets the zoning regulations. Generally, a public hearing is not required for site plans, but commissions can schedule one, particularly if a project is of very high interest to the general public. (Plans would still be subject to inland wetlands regulations, state agency requirements, etc.)
Special permits are required for uses or activities “generally” accepted in a zone, but an application must prove that the proposals are appropriate for the specific site. Special permit applications still must comply with zoning regulations but also trigger a range of more discretionary criteria, such as environmental protection and conservation, suitable location for use, suitable transportation conditions and nuisance avoidance. A special permit also requires a public hearing.
Moller contended that the Canton commission acted improperly in removing several special-permit criteria in the zone and focused particularly on floodplain management and earthwork and grading.
For example, under the earthwork and grading section of zoning, Canton regulations require a special permit for grading of more than 2,000 cubic yards.
Moller contended it was improper of the commission to drop the requirement for several special permits in the IH1 zone but not other properties in Canton.
Connecticut Superior Court Judge Edward V. O’Hanlan asked Moller about the state statute that gives commissions the discretion of whether or not to require special permits.
“Doesn’t the commission have the right in imposing them, to relieve them?” O’Hanlan asked.
“I think it does your honor, but I think [the commission would have] to relieve them as to all the properties, or all the zones,” Moller replied. “Here, they relieve it as to one property or one zone.”
Moller’s central argument contended that the changes were made to quell public input and were done solely to benefit Stein’s bottom line.
“The record doesn’t support that that decision was made for the public’s interest,” he said. “The record supports, in the comments from commissioners during discussion in August of 2021 … that the amendments were ultimately adopted to benefit Mr. Stein economically, to benefit him in order to pursue sort of development by any means necessary at the exclusion of consideration of the public’s interests.”
Moller also contended that removal of the special permit for earthwork and grading represented a threat to the environment.
“How is it harming the environment?” the judge asked.
“My understanding is that if you’re removing more than 2,000 [cubic yards] of earth you have to achieve a special permit,” Moller said. “Here it is saying you don’t need a special permit. You can effectively remove as much dirt as you want without seeking a special permit.”
O’Hanlan questioned whether the change opened the door to unchecked activity, asking if the amount of earth removal would still be part of the site plan and subject to review by the commission and town officials.
“Even if under the prior regulations you require a special permit approval and under the new regulations you don’t, a developer would still have to reveal. … the impact of his proposal,” the judge said.
Moller responded, “Your honor, even if that were the case, you’d still be removing the public’s ability to comment on that proposal,” he said. “You’re removing any public input on that proposal.”
“The public would have input at the site plan proceeding, wouldn’t it?” the judge responded.
O’Hanlan did say he understood the special permit process does draw more attention to an activity or use.
“The court understands that obviously when you have a special permit requirement, you’re shining a bright light on the issue and creating an appeal-able decision in the process but isn’t it within the commission’s discretion to remove that?” he asked Moller, who again reiterated that he felt it improper to do so for one zone.
The judge also confirmed with Moller that approvals from the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency would still be applicable in a redevelopment project.
At the proceeding, Moller also brought up historic preservation.
In the appeal Moller asserts that the changes in the IH1 Zone open the door to degrading the historic character of the complex.
During the 2021 public hearing on the proposed text changes, Stein’s team requested a section of the zone text that had stated, “The restoration and renovation of existing buildings will be consistent with the secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings.”
Stein’s team requested that “consistent” be changed to “sensitive to,” noting that they did not plan to apply for historic preservation grants due to the high cost of such renovation. The commission ultimately changed the line to “reasonably consistent,” based on the input from the Collinsville Historic District Commission.
“What occurred here, your honor, is those restrictions that safeguard that historic nature were stripped away and removed and in their place the developer is allowed to use more inexpensive, less historically accurate authentic materials, again all for his economic benefit at the expense of the historic nature of the site,” Moller said in court.
O’Hanlan also asked about the input of the Collinsville Historic District Commission but Moller remained unconvinced that it was adequately documented.
At the proceeding, O’Hanlan noted one of the court’s goals is to distinguish whether the changes went beyond Stein’s request and could be for the benefit of other developers and the larger goal of improving the property. He asked how the changes, in the end, were different if they were made with the more general purpose of ensuring the property’s redevelopment.
“You keep coming back to this motivation. ... to help Mr. Stein,” the judge said. “Even if it was articulated as helping Mr. Stein, how is it different if it was articulated that this is a difficult property; we need it; the town would be benefited if it were developed and not continue to degrade and therefore we going to make these changes to help stimulate and facilitate development? What’s the difference between the two?”
“I think it’s a balancing act,” Moller said. “You have to weigh what the developer is looking for and then what that does to the town.”
O’Hanlan and Moller both noted that it’s not unusual for developers to request changes – and discussed whether this instance went above and beyond reasonable requests.
“Normally you go in there and request something that you believe is going to be palatable to the commission,” the judge stated.
Moller came back to his development by any means necessary argument.
“Your honor I think that generally happens, but in situations such as this I think the developer senses that the commission was willing to accept almost any amendments that were proposed in order to get this thing developed,” he said. “So, I think that doesn’t mitigate the obligations on behalf of the commission to ensure the amendments that are proposed do in fact benefit the public.”
The commission’s attorney, Kenneth R. Slater, Jr. of Halloran & Sage LLP in Hartford, refuted the idea that the commission ignored the benefit to – and input from - the public.
“Repeatedly [Moller made] references to the fact that the comments of the public were ignored. The fact that the commission does not agree with certain comments from the public doesn’t mean they were ignored,” Slater said. “[Commission members are] the ones who are vested in making a legislative judgment in the best interests of the community and that’s what we believe the record reflects.”
Slater also refuted the notion that the removal of the special permits would give future developers carte blanche.
“The section of the revised regulations pertaining to earthworks no longer requires an independent special permit but included language says there has to be compliance [with] the discretionary permit review for the whole project,” he said.
Slater also said that while Mr. Stein might have been “the impetus,” for the changes, the commission is advocating they remain in place. He also strongly disagreed with Moller’s assertion that the changes were somehow counter to the state statute governing zoning.
“Here we have a historic axe factory that’s falling in on itself and when [commission members] learn by way of an application that there’s some things that they can do to streamline the process, to allow it to be developed, whether it be by Mr. Stein or some future developer - that was determined by the Planning and Zoning Commission to be in the best interest of the community. That’s something that Connecticut case law is very strongly in favor of - not having judicial interference of that kind of legislative judgment.”
The judge is expected to render a decision within 120 days.
Set on approximately 19 acres along the Farmington River, the complex – from 1826 to the mid 1966 – was home to The Collins Company, a world-famous manufacturer of edge tools. Some in the area sometimes incorrectly think the area is abandoned but some 45 to 55 small businesses operate in several buildings, particularly from the center of Collinsville to the Farmington River Trail bridge over the Farmington River.
Several of the structures, however, are in various states of disrepair and some are currently uninhabitable, particularly those in the rear of the property. In fact, earlier this month, the town’s fire marshal and building inspector sent notices of unsafe conditions – calling for restoration or abatement - for several of the buildings on site, including the “stone” or granite building south of the Farmington River Trail and several of its surrounding, unoccupied buildings.
What exactly the results of those actions will be remains to be seen.
“We are working with the town to resolve the issues,” said James “Rusty” Tilney, managing partner of current complex owner, At Collinsville, LLC.
The complex has been on the market for some time now and redevelopment has long been a priority in town. Several proposals have surfaced over the years, but how redevelopment should happen is often a topic of fierce debate.
Over the years, the town and the state have taken several steps to facilitate redevelopment, including the town’s Tax Increment Financing plan that would allow a portion of an increase in tax assessment that results from a project to go back into the project or related public improvements.
Another example is 2021 $195,000 state Department of Economic and Community Development Municipal Brownfield Grant that funded the latest phases of environmental assessment.
And Canton First Selectman Robert Bessel said interest in the property remains very high.
“We have had literally one developer after another coming forward and saying that they are interested in developing the axe factory,” he said last week, adding that in one recent week he met a different prospective buyer each day.
“We’ve never seen quite as many people come through in a short period of time.”
But Bessel acknowledged that it is a very complex project.
“What’s very consistent about these developers, once they start to do their due diligence on the property, their interest wanes and they don’t put in a bid. None of these would-be developers to date have out in a bid to buy the axe factory. That’s been disappointing but not entirely unexpected because this is a big project.”
Bessel also pushed back on the notion of development by any means, noting that there are numerous hurdles including local and state approvals, utility concerns, environmental remediation and more that a developer would need to navigate.
“There are so many hurdles for a developer to get across,” Bessel said. “We’re estimating that it could take as long as four years, minimum, from the time a developer puts in an application until a shovel gets in the ground.”
But Bessel said despite those challenges, the town is committed to the historic site’s redevelopment.
“The Town is as committed as ever to responsible redevelopment of the Collins Axe Factory,” Bessel said. “We have worked very hard over the last two decades to reduce obstacles to redevelopment because we know that the right plan can has expand the cultural and recreational opportunities available in Collinsville and Canton as a whole.”