Spring Street property owner appeals changes in axe factory zone
By John Fitts
CANTON – The owner of a property on Spring Street in Collinsville has appealed the Canton Planning and Zoning Commission’s approval of changes in the Industrial Heritage 1 (IH1) Zone that regulates re-development of the axe factory complex.
Set on approximately 19 acres along the Farmington River, the complex was home to The Collins Company, a world famous manufacturer of edge tools, from 1826 to the mid 1966. Today, some 45 small businesses operate in a portion of the remaining buildings but many of the approximately 25 structures are in various states of disrepair and several are currently uninhabitable.
Sheldon Stein of New York-based Ranger Properties has an option to purchase the property and this summer he and his team proposed several changes in the zone to facilitate redevelopment.
The changes for the IH1 zone, known as a text amendment, also included an updated master plan for the property, which shows three new residential buildings and a mix of residential and commercial uses for the existing structures. However, that master plan is a general visualization of a how a development could look. A much more detailed, construction level proposal would come with a specific site plan.
The Planning and Zoning Commission approved nearly all the proposed text changes for the zone at its Aug. 18 meeting and the lawsuit from Tyler Nye of Scranton, Pa., who owns 15-17 Spring St. in Collinsville, alleges the commission’s approval was “illegal, arbitrary, and/or capricious, and an abuse of the discretion vested in it.”
Both the commission and Stein are listed as defendants in the Superior Court appeal, filed by Cramer & Anderson, LLP of New Milford.
The appeal asserts Nye is “statutorily aggrieved” since his property is within 100 feet of the complex and notes a change in property setbacks from 30 feet to 10 feet, a change developers said would help accommodate a planned parking structure but one that did raise some concern from the public. (Developers say the parking garage would be tucked into the hillside but the idea has generosity some controversy over whether it could have a visual or audible impact). The appeal also alleges other potential impacts to area property owners.
Among the assertions listed in the appeal are allegations the decision was not based on evidence, violates the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development and is “inconsistent” with commission mandates to “promote public health, safety and general welfare” and to “secure safety from fire, flood other dangers.”
Another section alleges the changes were done to maximize profits and reduce risk for those looking to re-develop the property.
The appeal also alleges the commission did not “reasonably” take into account the historic nature of the complex and the impact the changes would permit.
The appeal also alleges that the decision reduces regulatory oversight and exempts some work from “general permitting standards and other requirements” that other properties in town are subject to.
The appeal, in one section, for example, notes that the changes allow “Any earthwork and grading ‘regardless of volume’ to occur without the need for the applicant to obtain a special permit under Sections 6.2 (‘Flood Plain Management’) and/or 7.5 (‘Earthwork and Grading’) of the Regulations.”
During the hearings, at least one commissioner did express concern that the lack of special permit hearings for the project could stifle public input since a site plan application – one of the next major steps in the process – would not necessarily requiring a public hearing.
During the summer meetings, Neil Pade the town’s director of Planning and Community Development, noted the commission can – and should – hold a public hearing when the site plan is filed and Planning and Zoning Commission Jonathan Thiesse said special permits are generally used to determine if a use is appropriate on a particular property within a larger zone – not for a single zone site.
At the summer hearing, members of the development team said the request to clarify that special permits referenced in other zoning sections are not needed for the IH1 zone is one of process, expressing concerns that permits could potentially be required at several points during the project, delaying progress. But developers also said the lack of special permits does not exempt them from meeting the zoning standards.
“When we get to the site plan, we want to move the process through in a consistent and relatively streamlined process, so whether it’s earthwork and grading, floodplain management, landscaping or retaining walls, but primarily earthwork and grading and floodplain management, the narrative we’ve proposed says we’ll meet all the standards but we’re not going to be subject to special permit criteria because we don’t want to have additional public hearings on those as we move forward,” Phil Doyle, of Simsbury based Landscape Architectural Design Associates said at the July hearing.
The new language in the regulations for the zone states that while a special permit is not required, “all earthwork and grading shall be consistent with the purpose of Zoning; provide for restoration and development of the property; comply with the standards of Section 6.2 and 7.5; and, where applicable, obtain a permit from the Canton IWWA (Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency).”
The legal action includes two counts of administrative appeal with the second focusing on historic preservation and the property’s location within the boundaries of a national register of Historic places Historic District and alleges the commission did not properly look into alternatives and acted “illegally, arbitrarily, or capriciously and abused its discretion” in not considering potential “negative effects” or “feasible and prudent alternatives.”
During the public hearing on the proposed text changes, Stein’s team requested a change to the section of the zone stating “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 language to change the words “consistent with” to “sensitive to,” noting that they did not plan to apply for historic preservation grants, asserting that it was prohibitive and the current conditions of the buildings make that impractical.
“The buildings have gotten to the point where the feasibility of that today is highly unlikely,” Doyle said at the July hearing. “It was unlikely, actually, when it was proposed 20 years ago …conditions today are very much deteriorated so we have a proposal that will not be looking for [those] grants.”
At the advice of the local Collinsville Historic District Commission, the adopted language uses the term “reasonably consistent.”
The appeal asserts that the changes open the door to degrading the historic character of the complex through the use of less authentic materials, architecture and structures.
In previous meetings, Stein asserted that he has a real passion for breathing new life into historic properties and working with towns to come up with quality projects.
“We came to this project about 6 or 8 months ago and really love the existing bones of the axe factory and have a real passion to restore old properties that have great history and great bones that really want for redevelopment,” Stein said at the July hearing.
Last week, Stein expressed disappointment in the appeal.
“We are disappointed a neighbor would file an appeal but remain extremely committed to the Collins Axe property development and don’t foresee the appeal materially delaying our schedule,” he said. “The Town and its boards have been extremely good partners and supportive in the land use application process and we expect they will remain steadfast as this is exhausted in the courts.”
Messages to the commission’s attorney had not been returned as of press time. An email sent to Nye was also unanswered as of late last week,