While developer won't pursue project, Collins Co. appeal to proceed
Posted Sept. 1. Updated Sept. 6, Sept. 14 and Nov 10 with further details provided in court filings. Updated again Dec. 23 to reflect a change in the court date.
By John Fitts
COLLINSVILLE – While a New York developer who had planned to revitalize the Collins Company Axe factory complex will not pursue the project, an appeal of the Planning and Zoning Commission’s changes to the zone that regulates re-development of the property is moving forward and is expected to be heard in court early next year.
In August of 2021, the Canton commission approved 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 – from 1826 to the mid 1966 – was home to The Collins Company, a world-famous manufacturer of edge tools. Today, some 45 small businesses operate in a portion of the remaining buildings but some of the approximately 25 structures are in various states of disrepair, and several are currently uninhabitable.
The complex is currently owned by At Collinsville, LLC.
Redevelopment has long been a priority in town and several proposals have surfaced over the years, but how it should happen is often a topic of fierce debate.
The IH Zone was approved in 1999 to specifically curate potential redevelopment of the property. Underlying Canton zoning regulations are still in effect if not modified by the zone.
The zone text was updated in 2014 and 2019, the latter taking into account a 2016 Tax Increment Financing Master Plan developed for the property in an attempt to attract developers.
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.
While he won't pursue the project, Sheldon Stein of New York-based Ranger Properties and his team requested the changes approved last year.
In September of 2021, Tyler Nye of Scranton, Pa., who owns 15-17 Spring St. in Collinsville, appealed those changes to the zone, alleging the commission’s approval “was not based on evidence, violates the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development and is “inconsistent” with mandates related to “promote public health, safety and general welfare” and to “secure safety from fire, flood other dangers.”
The appeal asserts that Nye is “statutorily aggrieved” since his property is within 100 feet of the complex and noted, among others, a change in property setbacks from 30 feet to 10 feet.
The appeal 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.”
In a July brief on the appeal, Nye’s attorney Graham W. Moller of Cramer and Anderson in New Milford alleges the changes were made solely for the benefit of the applicant at the expense of community interests.
At one point in the brief, he writes “The benefit that was conferred on Mr. Stein was not incidental to a benefit to the public, nor is Mr. Stein’s benefit incidental to the interest of the community. Rather, the primary purpose for which the text amendments were proposed and adopted was to achieve a benefit for Mr. Stein, at the expense of the community.”
A Sept. 12 brief from commission attorney Kenneth R. Slater, Jr. of Halloran & Sage LLP in Hartford, disputes those notions and, in one section, states “The return of the record reveals a careful, thorough reviewal process presenting specific reasons for each of the regulatory text amendments that were approved by the commission. The Commission found that the proposed regulations were consistent with Canton’s comprehensive plan and will result in an overall positive benefit to the general public.”
Slater goes on to call some of the reasons in the appeal “dramatic, overly broad and a times factually incorrect” and said the commission did not “abuse its extremely broad legislative discretion.”
A few examples of the changes made and why they are under contention
There are numerous detailed allegations in the appeal.
It, for example, 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.”
During the public hearing on the proposed text changes, Stein’s team requested a section of the zone text 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 that language of 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, stating, “the current conditions of the buildings make that impractical.” The commission ultimately changed that to “reasonably consistent.”
In a brief expanding on the allegations, Moller noted the changes, including the removal of a prohibition against artificial stone or precast concrete in retaining walls, and the addition of allowing fiberglass and plastic in windows.
He also notes the change of “every effort” to effort” in a section that addresses material, scale and proportions. “In approving the amendments to the Zoning Regulations, the PZC decided to sacrifice the historic nature of the Property, and therefore the historic nature of the surrounding village, for the sake of a more inexpensive, hasty, and deregulated development scheme. …. The purpose underlying the removal of these historic safeguards was purely financial. The financial benefit of Mr. Stein was achieved through sacrificing the historical nature of the Property, and therefore the historic nature of the Village of Collinsville.”
Slater contends that the changes are consistent with policy of “preserving historic resources and were done with a favorable report from the Collinsville Historic District Commission.”
Slater also addressed the condition of some of the more delipidated buildings
“The Commission was presented evidence that the conditions of the Property were so poor that in the not-so distant future, there will be nothing historic about the Property other than the deteriorated remains and rubble of what were once historic buildings. The 1999 Regulations have been in effect for approximately 23 years and in that time nothing has been done to improve the Property’s condition. The Applicant proposed limited and reasonable accommodations would help support development while maintaining the Property’s historic character. Based on previously mentioned facts, there is substantial evidence supporting the Commission’s decision to approve the application as consistent with maintaining historic resources.”
Another contention in the appeal concerns the elimination of some special permit requirements.
The appeal, for example, alleges a change to “exempt Mr. Stein from obtaining a special permit, as required by [section] 6.2 of the Zoning Regulations, for any earthwork and grading to be conducted at the property ‘regardless of volume.’”
During the approval process developers did look to reduce or eliminate special permits required for aspects such as earthwork and grading, floodplain management, landscaping and retaining walls but contended that the changes would not result in any less regulatory oversight but rather a streamlining of the process, allowing that type of information to be presented during the site plan process, rather than separate public hearings.
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).”
Nye’s attorney, however, also alleges public input would also be greatly affected by the change and notes that during the process, a commissioner pointed out that a site plan does not require a public hearing.
“Commissioner [Elizabeth] Vinick further made the salient point that the review of a site plan does not include public comment as a right, so the effect of granting exemption from special permitting requirements would serve to eliminate all public input on Mr. Stein’s development project,” he wrote.
Moller alleges that testimony shows the special permits would not limit development or lead to further building deterioration but were seen as inconvenient and financial “roadblocks.”
In his brief, Slater contends that other sections of the regulations still govern activity referenced in the special permits and the elimination of some special permits does not translate to lack of oversight.
He also said the regulations at large retain a special permit requirement for earth removal and disturbance greater than 2,000 square feet and said hearing testimony shows that even foundation work on many of the buildings would trigger such a requirement.
“The Revised Regulations clarified the regulations and eased the administrative burden of having to seek special permit approval for all earthwork and grading while still subjecting development to the general standards for grading and earthworks provided for elsewhere in the regulations,” Slater adds, contending that the changes are consistent with the state statute governing zoning.
During the amendment process, town officials also noted that the commission can – and most certainly would – elect to hold a public hearing for a site plan application.
The appeal and briefs go into much more detail about historic character, other special permit issues, and many other aspects under contention – such as a minimum office space requirement, the Farmington Overlay District boundaries, landscape standards, retaining walls and fencing standards, and fire lane specifications.
Developer 'no longer has a contractural or other interest in the real property'
Stein, of New York-based Ranger Properties, and his team, proposed the changes listed in the appeal as part of a plan to redevelop with a mix of residential and commercial uses for existing structures and as many as three new residential buildings and a parking structure.
New information, however, indicates Stein won't pursue development at the complex.
In an Aug. 17 filing to modify a briefing schedule order, Stein’s attorney Christopher J. Smith of Alter & Pearson wrote, “The undersigned was advised that his client, defendant Sheldon Stein, no longer has a contractual or other interest in the real property, which is associated with the text amendment that is the subject of this appeal.”
A subsequent Sept. 6 filing by Stein's attorney confirmed that assertion and asked that his name be withdrawn from the appeal. No reason for the change was listed but some sources have indicated it is related to matters that have nothing to do with the project itself.
Subsequent motions were filed and on Nov. 1, a judge granted Stein's motion to withdraw as a defendant in the lawsuit.
The case will continue
But even with the appeal amended, attorneys agree the legal case will proceed.
“The text amendments approved by the Canton Planning and Zoning Commission go into effect regardless of Mr. Stein’s purchase of the property,” Moller wrote the Valley Press. “Because of this, my client has no choice but to push forward and continue his appeal of the poorly considered amendments. In maintaining his appeal, my client’s goal is to ensure that any potential future developer of the Collins Company property is not able to evade the Town’s regulations in the same manner as sought by Mr. Stein. My client has presented valid grievances that the leadership of the Town of Canton has failed address. We continue to be disappointed that these amendments were approved for the sole benefit of Mr. Stein, without consideration of the sacrifices to public safety that the approval of the amendments created.”
Slater agreed the case would proceed but assert the commission would defend what he called good policy decisions.
“The commission made a decision that this is good policy for the town and whether this particular developer is interested in proceeding doesn’t change the fact that they think that this is a wise policy move and they’ll defend it,” he said.
A court date for the matter is now set for Feb. 15. It was originally set for Jan. 25 but a continuance was granted due to a request from Moller, who had a conflict for the January date.
What else is happening in terms of the property's future?
Sources have told The Valley Press that other parties continue to look at the property. Town officials also said several actions are still in progress in regard to the complex.
For example, the final phase of an environmental assessment of the property is currently underway. The work was funded by a 2021 grant for $195,000 from the state Department of Economic and Community Development Municipal Brownfield Grant.
The work builds upon preliminary assessments done under past state grants and will involve a remediation action plan for the property.
“Although the current proposal is currently on hold, the town is still taking steps to make the property more developable, moving forward with brownfields grants and coordinating that with the state to make sure that any environmental issues with the property are discovered and there are plans to have those cleaned up – or mitigated,” said Canton Chief Administrative Officer Robert Skinner, who also said some of the zoning changes would also help development efforts.
First Selectman Robert Bessel said it’s important to note that while other studies have been performed in the past, this environmental remediation plan will be publicly available and give potential developers a more complete picture of the property.
Bessel also referenced other work that has already been done, such as the 2016 development of a Preliminary Tax Increment Financing Plan for the property. TIF plans do not award any current tax dollars to a would-be developer but allow a portion of an increase in tax assessment that results from a project to go back into the project or related public improvements.
While a final TIF plan would need approval from the Boards of Selectmen and Finance as well as electors at Town Meeting, it, along with the environmental work and other actions on the site, will help the process along greatly for whoever ultimately looks to re-develop the complex, officials said.
The goal is to find the balance to secure a project is good for the town, developer, investors, renters, tenants and neighbors, Bessel said.
“What we ultimately want is for the community to feel proud that this project is getting done and we also want it to be viable so the developer can complete the project and maintain the product in such a way that it works for everyone,” Bessel said. “That’s really what we’re trying to do here. It’s a true balancing act.”