July 24, 2014

Lawsuit Filed Over Deep River Zoning Board of Appeals Actions in Proposed Used Car Dealership Case

DEEP RIVER— Actions by the zoning board of appeals last summer on requested variances for a proposed used car dealership at a former industrial building on Route 154 have led to a lawsuit filed against the board. Local resident George Bartlett Jr. filed a lawsuit in November asking the court to direct the board to amend its minutes from a contentious June 19 public hearing, and to approve two variances needed for Bartlett to pursue planning and zoning commission approval of a used car dealership at the 444 Main Street property.

The lawsuit filed in Middlesex Superior Court by Essex lawyer John Bennet contends the board in September improperly rejected a request from Bartlett to amend and correct allegedly inaccurate minutes from the June 19 public hearing and meeting on the variance appeals. The lawsuit contends minutes prepared by long-time zoning board of appeals chairman Donald Grohs did not accurately report Bartlett’s request for two variances at the June 19 session. The suit also notes that Grohs had recused himself from hearing the appeal because he owns nearby property, and that there is no tape recording of the board’s discussion and vote on the variance appeals.

The plan to open a used car dealership at the former Champion Tool & Die Co. building had drawn strong opposition from the planning and zoning commission at the June 19 hearing. Variances were needed to pursue approval of a used car dealership in the parcel because zoning regulations require at least 150 feet of road frontage for businesses in the Turnpike Industrial Zone on the south side of town. The 444 Main Street parcel has only 144.7-feet of road frontage.

The lawyer for the commission, Middletown attorney William Howard, had maintained that Bartlett, who was represented by Essex lawyer and Bennet partner Michael Wells, was seeking both a 5.3-foot dimensional variance, but also an illegal use variance of a separate regulation that required at least 150-feet of road frontage for used car dealerships. The board approved the dimensional variance on a 4-1 vote, but there was also a clear sense after the June 19 meeting that the board had also approved a separate variance of regulation 7B.9.3 that had drawn objections from the planning and zoning commission.

The commission at a June 21 meeting directed Howard to file a court appeal of the ZBA decision, setting up a possible legal battle between the zoning board of appeals and the planning and zoning commission, with town taxpayers paying the legal expenses for both panels. But the commission vs. board lawsuit appeared to have been averted after First Selectman Richard Smith set up a July 2 meeting between members and legal counsel for the board and commission.

Cathy Jefferson, zoning enforcement officer, said Wednesday the commission is not involved in the lawsuit between Bartlett and the zoning board of appeals. Jefferson said Bartlett received approval during the fall to lease a portion of the building to a small manufacturing business, but has not filed any applications for approval of the proposed used car dealership.