Notes from the Old Noank Jail
In Noank, size matters.... by Ed Johnson
On Thursday, September 13th, I attended a meeting of the 7 member Noank Fire District Zoning Board of Appeals. I observed the Public Hearing pertaining to a proposed large new residence on Smith Court in the Village, to be built on the site of an older, smaller house. It became an unusually long public meeting, lasting from 7:00 PM until after 1:00 AM, over 6 hours, just to obtain information and testimony from all concerned parties on this one appeal. The volunteer members of the ZBA will now review all the material submitted and make their final decision at a later date. Some folks will be happy with their decision, while others will not.
In recent years, residential zoning is still a major issue, especially in shoreline areas where space is tight, with land values and property taxes that have risen dramatically. The historic district area of Noank Village is no exception. Sixty years ago, waterfront and nearby property was mostly occupied by working families who fished for a living. Now, with the exception of some commercial businesses, many (not all) shoreline area residents are the more wealthy homeowners with higher salaried jobs who work elsewhere or are retired.
Many of the buildings and residences in Noank date back to the 1850's or earlier and with few exceptions, most houses are small to midsize on modest property lots. Many newer residents who arrived in the '60's and '70's have moved into these houses "as is" and have only made minor changes or additions to the existing building footprints This trend, by my observation, began to change in the '80's and into the '90's until the present. There were now more of the older structures being torn down and replaced with new and much larger houses. More recently, in an effort to control this "McMansion" problem, the Noank Zoning Commission made some changes in new construction requirements, the most notable being a basic reduction in roof peak height allowance from 35' to 30' from the ground.
But the beat goes on. New people arriving with money look upon this area as being physically attractive, especially if they enjoy boating, want to build spacious homes with large garages and have plenty of extra living space to invite their families and friends for comfortable visits. The new property owner at Smith Court mentioned these things as an incentive and that he and his architect went through no less than 4 meetings with the Zoning Board, making sure that all their requested design changes were met, before approval by the Zoning Enforcement Officer. He and his attorney indicated that they felt they had met all of the legal zoning requirements for the new construction.
However, the overall design did not please a very large number of local neighbors, some of whom then filed a formal complaint with their own attorney, resulting in the September 13th hearing. The neighbors' attorney produced a well-known, authoritative local witness, Mr. E. Zell Steever, who presented an extensive report and drawings which indicated that the proposed Smith Court house basically violated the character of the neighborhood in terms of overall size, bulk, volume and scale. Mr. Steever felt that these factors could also be in actual violation of a particular section of the zoning regulations in that the "scale of construction...must relate to human scale and scale of structures within two hundred feet of the lot."
As mentioned, this meeting went on for over 6 hours. It included (a) the interaction of no less than 4 attorneys (one each for the property owners, the neighbors, the fire district and the legal arbitrator for the Zoning Board), (b) presentations, interrogations and reviews by all attorneys at various times, (c) testimony by the architects for the property owner and the zoning board, (d) testimony by the Zoning Enforcement Officer (e) testimony and presentation by Mr. Steever for the local neighborhood, (f) the presentation of a petition, reportedly signed by approximately 35 Noank residents, requesting the zoning permit be withdrawn, and finally the verbal testimony of 11 members of the public, including 9 Noank residents who also requested the zoning permit be withdrawn. The meeting had started with over 50 people in a crowded meeting room, necessitating a change to another, larger room. By the end of the public meeting, at 1:09 AM, there were still over 35 people present.
In the recent past, one of the complaints that I have heard from one of the zoning officials is that local residents fail to actively participate in zoning meetings in order to give advance input on suggested changes. Then, they get upset about a new building design at the last minute during a review and/or appeal process. Based on my observation of the September 13th Hearing, there certainly need to be further restrictions on new construction that are more closely defined (By lowering the roof line to 30' but with no other very specific restriction, an architect can decide to make the building a little wider or fatter). Otherwise, it makes the job of the volunteer zoning commission and appeals board far more time consuming.
And, I believe someone told me that attorneys can sometimes be expensive....especially at 1:00 AM.
You may submit comments to: EdwardR.Johnson72@gmail.com