Zoning Board Expresses Doubt on College Variance Requests

CHESTER – Though the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) didn’t express much confidence in four variance requests from TF Moran Inc., on behalf of Chester College of New England, it did agree to hold off any decisions until after a site walk and future hearing.

Representation from TF Moran and Chris Norwood of the NAI Norwood Group, which is currently marketing the college’s 70 acres, met with the ZBA on June 19 as part of an ongoing effort to subdivide the property into three parcels.

While two parcels meet the town’s standards, a third, 1.1 acre piece where the Lane and Powers buildings stand (at the southeastern corner) would require four variances to work. These variances include permission to have a lot under two acres and with less than 290 feet of frontage, a higher percentage (54 percent) of impervious surface than is allowed (15 percent), and the need to have a 200-foot-diameter circle within the parcel.

The ZBA didn’t express confidence in the plan to create that 1.1 acre parcel. Members said there were alternatives to the configuration and noted that the main purpose of the variances would be to help sell the property, something members said that while beneficial, wasn’t the town’s responsibility. Some members noted they shouldn’t have to change the rules for the parcel when there were suitable alternatives.

The college has a buyer for the majority of the property as well as a separate 2.17 acre piece, but it was explained to the ZBA that the agreement for the large parcel didn’t include the 1.1 acre piece and the buyer didn’t have an interest in it. Norwood explained that the small piece did not lend itself well to the potential future use of the larger parcel (see related story page 3).

Jeffrey Kevan, Civil Project Supervisor with TF Moran, explained that some of the reason for the subdivision request was a request from the board of selectmen to leave the small green space in the front of the property open for public use. To do that, Kevan stated, it is beneficial to have a single owner, rather than subdividing down the middle of that green.

It was agreed that the green space was aesthetically valuable, rather than valuable as a place to take a walk. Kevan argued that the lot line would essentially be the only thing that changed, but the parcel itself, because of the green space, would still have the physical look and function of a larger piece,
It was argued that because the parcel would be utilizing a community septic and well, the setback requirements that partially prompted the need for the two acre requirement weren’t as crucial. This same argument was used for the impervious surface requirement.

ZBA member Cass Buckley said that when the matter was boiled down to its essence, the only reason the variances were needed was to facilitate the sale of the larger piece.
“Is it the town’s job to maximize your marketability?” asked Buckley. Buckley said he was looking to follow the town’s rules as stated and the plan presented didn’t appear to meet the criteria for acceptance of the variance requests.

Kevan said the uniqueness of the area, as a college campus, requires that it be reconfigured before it can be repurposed. “A college user is not coming back so we’re trying to make it viable for businesses to operate in it,” said Kevan. He added that he understood the town’s concerns with setting a precedent with the smaller lot, but called the situation unique.

Kevan added that he would not have brought the variances forward if he did not think they were necessary.
ZBA member Kevin Scott said there were feasible alternatives, adding that he thinks those alternatives would not impact the sale of the large piece, Member Charlotte Lister said she was uncomfortable with the number of variances requested, with so many variances akin to tearing up the town’s ordinance.

Chair Billie Maloney said she was undecided and while she could see the college’s points, it was a lot to ask. The board agreed to hold a site walk and to revisit the issue at its next meeting.

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