Deep River, Connecticut – Shopping at the grocery store, buying tools at the local hardware store, getting the kids some toys, and buying that special gift at the card shop can be done in this small town, all within walking distance.
Many of the businesses in village center are still independently owned where the owners personally know their customers.
In many towns, such a convenience simply does not exist.
Instead those towns have sprawl characterized by large shopping centers filled with chain restaurants and stores surrounded by seas of macadam with little or no landscaping.
Such commercial strip areas often feature large illuminated signs in an automobile oriented environment next to large multi-lane roads.
The Tri-State Regional Plan Agency has studied the tri-state region (Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey) since the 1960’s and concluded while population increased by only 13 percent, developed areas increased by 60 percent.
Upcoming development which will change Deep River’s village center includes a 9,960 square foot Walgreens pharmacy with prescription drive-thru, a new 3,744 square foot Cumberland Farms convenience store with three gasoline islands, and the transformation of the Elms from that of a boarding house to 5,200 square feet of retail and 900 square feet of offices.
First Selectman Richard Smith said “so much has happened to Deep River in the past four years,” adding that only a few years ago the Deep River Shopping Center was renovated resulting in an expanded Adam’s grocery store.
Concerned about such development, the Citizens for Deep River group sponsored a recent workshop featuring Jim Gibbons, Land Use and Natural Resource Program Coordinator for the University of Connecticut, who spoke about smart growth strategies which aim to fight off sprawl.
About forty residents attended the workshop, wanting to learn how economic development and preservation can be balanced.
After walking through downtown with its historic three-story buildings, beautiful gazebo in front of a pond, and its unique iron flatiron town hall, Gibbons is convinced if the town relies on developing smart growth strategies it can maintain its distinct identity.
Gibbons said a natural resource inventory of the town is available online at http://nemo.uconn.edu.
To prevent sprawl in Deep River, Gibbons suggested that the town’s revision to the Plan for Conservation and Development be more specific in helping developers identify what the town would like to see specifically with future development.
Deep River Planning and Zoning Commission Vice Chair Nancy Fischbach said the commission is in the process of updating its Plan of Conservation and Development.
Techniques discussed by Gibbons in preventing sprawl are either in the current Plan of Conservation and Development or are in the current draft, Fischbach said.
Fischbach said finalizing sign regulations is a priority to commission as it expects to see at least two sign regulation applications in the near future for village center.
Rather than revising sign regulations, Gibbons suggested the town embrace the concept of adapting either a village district or a local historic district to promote economic development and preserve the town’s character.
Adapting a village district is as simple as amending zoning regulations, Gibbons said, adding a public hearing would be required.
The Connecticut Office of Legislative Research reports that new construction and substantial reconstruction in such a district would require a review by an architect selected by the Zoning Commission.
Such a review looks to see wither proposals are harmonious with surroundings in terms of scale, architecture, color and materials, and focus on spaces and structures visible form the road.
Towns with village districts includes Madison, Middletown, and Brooklyn, however, it is a relatively new concept in Connecticut.
Gibbons said another way a town can control development is through the creation of a historic district.
A historic district requires a detailed inventory and description of historical structures, map showing boundaries of the district, and a proposed ordinance to be added to a town charter.
A public hearing is required along with a two thirds approval from property owners in the district.
If owners approve of the district, a five-member historic district commission must be formed, according to the Office of Legislative Research.
A certificate of appropriateness is required from the commission for creation of a new building or major renovation of an existing building as well as the demolition permit for a building in the district.
The Office of Legislative Research states village districts give municipalities greater power because it covers physical changes to existing buildings, maintenance of public views, design and placement of public roads, and can cover open spaces.
Creating a village district in downtown is a possibility, Planning and Zoning Chair Jonathan Kastner said, adding the commission is considering a historic district to historic homes.