May 24, 2022

Deep River Planning and Zoning to Challenge Board of Appeals Used Car Lot Variance

DEEP RIVER— The planning and zoning commission has voted to file an appeal in Middlesex Superior Court challenging the zoning board of appeals June 19 approval of a variance that would allow local resident George Bartlett to open a used car dealership in a former industrial building at 444 South Main St. (Route 154).

The commission, which had opposed the Bartlett variance at the ZBA public hearing, discussed the situation for about 25 minutes in a closed session at it’s June 21 meeting before voting unanimously to direct its attorney, Middletown lawyer William Howard, to file a court appeal of the decision. The commission directed Howard to “explore all of the issues he addressed” at the June 19 ZBA session.

Bartlett, who was represented at the hearing by Essex lawyer Michael Wells, was seeking a variance of the local zoning regulation requiring at least 150-feet of road frontage for a car dealership in the industrial zone along Route 154 on the southern end of town. The parcel, the former Champion Tool and Dye company property on the west side of Route 154, has 144 feet of road frontage. Wells said Bartlett was unable to purchase a small strip of land from the abutting property to the north to meet the 150-foot requirement.

But Howard, speaking for the commission and Zoning Enforcement Officer Cathy Jefferson, had maintained Bartlett was actually seeking a use variance because the regulation requiring at least 150 feet of road frontage applied to all parcels in the industrial zone. Howard also discounted the claim of a legal hardship related to the variance.

The ZBA approved the variance on a 4-1 vote, with alternate Jerome Scharr opposed. Board Chairman Donald Grohs has recused himself from the appeal because he owns nearby property. The board determined the proposed used car dealership conformed with the historical use of the property and the character of the surrounding neighborhood, and that Bartlett’s inability to acquire abutting property to meet the 150-feet requirement represented a hardship. Wells had noted at the hearing the parcel had been a used car dealership in the 1960s.

First Selectman Richard Smith said Tuesday he is disappointed by a situation where one town board or commission is suing another in court, with the taxpayers paying legal expenses for both sides. “It happens but we’ll resolve this,” Smith said, adding “we’re going to try to do it before we spend too much money.”

Smith said a similar PZC against ZBA court case occurred in Deep River more than a decade ago. He suggested having an “independent attorney” attempt to mediate the dispute before any possible court hearing. The legal notice for the ZBA decision on the Bartlett appeal was published Wednesday.