Reporter Jackie Majerus wrote this story:
When city councilors and school officials move ahead with plans to build two new K-8 schools without first getting land use approvals, they're taking a risk of derailing the project, said zoning board Chairman Frank Johnson.
The plans to buy a former Scalia sand pit to use as a site for a proposed West End school require a recommendation from the planning board and a special permit from the city zoning commission.
The planning commission meets next week and is expected to consider the question of a school on the Scalia site then. They'll be asked to make a recommendation as to whether or not the site is appropriate for a school.
If the planning board recommends against it, the city can still move forward, but the vote by city councilors must be by a two-thirds majority rather than a simple majority.
If the project moves beyond the planning commission's recommendation, at some point it will land in the lap of zoning commissioners, who will have to decide whether that parcel of land in a residential zone should get a special permit to build a school there.
"The zoning commission's purview would be to determine whether or not that's the highest and best use for that land," said Johnson.
While Johnson said he could not speak for other zoning commissioners, he said he would personally "have to be convinced" that a school is the "highest and best" use for the property.
Johnson said he wouldn't want the zoning board to be the stumbling block that keeps the project from happening, but said the city's delay in consulting with land use boards sets them up for that role.
"They're putting us in a position where our decision is very late in the process," said Johnson.
It's difficult for the zoning commissioners to get their first look at a proposal after the city's already spent a bundle of money on the project, Johnson said.
In that case, Johnson said, the city may expect commissioners to "rubber stamp" the application.
But school and town officials shouldn't count on it, Johnson said.
"While that may have happened in the past on school projects, there's no guarantee it will always happen," Johnson said.
Johnson, who has served on the zoning board for two decades, said it wouldn't be right – or wise – to assume that the special permit application will sail through his commission.
"This has still got a lot of obstacles to go," said Johnson, before the deal is done.
City Councilor Craig Minor comments:
I was surprised to read Frank Johnson say that "The zoning commission's purview would be to determine whether or not that's the highest and best use for that land." "Highest and best use" is a phrase that real estate appraisers use to refer to the activity that makes the most profit for the land owner. The phrase is not in the Bristol Zoning Regulations, and according to the Connecticut Supreme Court, "The highest and best use…is not a controlling purpose of zoning".
The Zoning Commission's job is to make sure that an application complies with all of the zoning regulations. Finding the most profitable way to develop a piece of property is the job of the free market, not local government.
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