Reporter Jackie Majerus wrote this story:
City Councilor Craig Minor is taking issue with zoning board Chairman Frank Johnson's description of the board's role in determining a new K-8 school site.
Minor, who is the city planner for the town of Cromwell, said Johnson was wrong when he said zoning commissioners would have to determine whether a school would be the "highest and best use" of the former Scalia sand pit that school officials are eyeing for the new building.
"The commission does not take into consideration whether this is the best use of the property, or even a good use of the property," said Minor. "That's not for them to say."
Referring to the "highest and best use," said Minor, is also not for Johnson to say, either. He said it's a specific term used by real estate appraisers to "refer to the activity that makes the most profit for the land owner."
The phrase is not in Bristol's zoning regulations, Minor said.
"The zoning commission's job is to make sure that an application complies with all of the zoning regulations," said Minor. "Finding the most profitable way to develop a piece of property is the job of the free market, not local government."
Johnson said he wasn't speaking as a real estate appraiser.
"I'm not considering the land value," said Johnson. "I'm strictly looking at the use of the land."
He said one of the things his board has to consider is whether or not a school is an "appropriate use" for the land and thus, deserving of a special permit.
In doing so, Johnson said, they'll take the impact on the surrounding neighborhood into account, as well as traffic, the infrastructure and public safety issues.
"We will take a very careful look at this," said Johnson.
When zoning board members wrote the regulations, Johnson said, they intended for applications for special permits to be taken on a case by case basis, since what the applicant wants is not allowed automatically by right.
"If I misspoke, I misspoke. I'm not so sure that I did," said Johnson. "I'm certainly not apologizing for anything I said."
City Planner Alan Weiner said Minor is right that "highest and best use" is a real estate appraisal term. But he said he's heard members of many land use boards in Bristol and other towns use it.
In the real estate appraisal world, it has to do with what use of the land would be most profitable, Weiner said.
"The term has a very specific meaning in that context," said Weiner. "I'm presuming they didn't mean it in the real estate appraisal sense."
Minor said he didn't believe that Johnson had any conflict of interest, and Weiner said he has faith that the zoning board will do its job.
"When the zoning commission looks at applications, they know what they need to do," said Weiner. "They know what their role is and they know what their responsibility is."
The plan to build a new school on the old sand pit is expected to come before the Bristol Planning Commission on Wednesday, Sept. 24. At that meeting, planning commissioners will be asked to make a recommendation on the proposal.
If they recommend against it, city councilors will have to have a two-thirds majority in order to move forward with the school on that property.
Minor said he doesn't know how the planning board will rule.
"There are problems with this site from the planning commission's point of view," said Minor, who said its inaccessibility to pedestrians, or children walking to school may be an issue, as well as its remote location. "The planning commission might not think it's the best place for it."
Minor said he supports the Scalia site for the school, but "grudgingly," calling it a "distant second best" after the property on Park and Divinity streets.
Though he preferred Park and Divinity, Minor said, he thinks it's better for the city to move the school project ahead than wait any longer.
"I don't think Park Street has the votes on the city council," said Minor.
If the planning board recommends against the sand pit site, it will set the project back a year, said Minor, "and it might even kill it."
Only if the project moves forward after the stop at the planning board – either by an affirmative recommendation or by a two-thirds majority on the council – would it at some point come before the zoning commission.
If that happens, the zoning board would be asked to consider whether the residentially-zoned Scalia property deserves a special permit for a school. The project couldn't go ahead without it.
If the project does make it to the zoning board, Minor said, it must be approved or denied on its merits, not on whether or not another piece of property is better suited for a school.
"The planning commission can say those things, but not the zoning commission," said Minor. "Certainly the planning commission should be involved in this decision."
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