For the last three years, Cornwall’s town planners have been laboring to update and modernize the town’s zoning regulations for the first time in recent memory. Now it’s time for everyone else to weigh in.
The Planning and Zoning Commission has scheduled two public meetings on a new draft of the zoning rules. At the first, on April 11 the commission and staff reviewed the update and addressed a single question from the public via Zoom.
A second session is scheduled for Tuesday, May 9 at 7 p.m. at the Cornwall Library on Pine Street. The public can provide testimony at this hearing and/or send comments to Landuse@cornwallct.gov. P&Z could adopt the updated regulations as soon as the May 9 meeting, or at a future P&Z meeting if more time is needed to respond to public feedback. The updated regulations would become effective at a date yet to be set, but typically the first day of the month following their adoption by P&Z.
The revisions are notable both for what they aim to accomplish and for what they don’t propose to disturb. They’re easier to read than the existing regulations, organizing requirements in a more logical way, clarifying imprecise language, aligning town regulations with state statutes and incorporating useful digital links. They delete potentially discriminatory terms that might encourage lawsuits.
They do not, however, alter the rules meant to preserve the well-being of Cornwall citizens and encourage the appropriate use of land. Acreage requirements for homebuilding are unchanged. Flashing, revolving or rotating signs are still verboten, with the single and age-old exception of barber poles. A concise table summarizes the permitted uses in the town’s three land-use zones; the table is new but the particulars are unchanged. If you’re thinking about opening a third farmer’s market, it’ll still have to go in a general business zone or on town-owned property and will require, as always, a special permit.
The nine commission members and alternates began their work in March 2020 under Jill Cutler’s leadership and continued when Anna Timell became chair in November 2020. The commission’s professional planning consultant (and Cornwall resident) Janell Mullen and enforcement officer Karen Nelson provided technical assistance.
The resulting document is shorter – 62 pages compared to the previous 90 — and features a copy of the map showing the locations of the residential, general business and overlay zones. (The least burdensome way to find it now is to visit the town office on Pine Street or scroll past 19 pages in the Plan of Conservation and Development 2020.) Changes that are driven by state law are typically noted, though not all references to state statutes in the update indicate a change to Cornwall zoning; other revisions represent more discretionary language changes proposed by P&Z or to align language with case law.
Examples of changes include deletion of the phrase “to conserve and maintain the values of land and buildings” from the description of the document’s “intent and purpose” while adding “social health” to “economic health” as things to be encouraged. Timell said that the alterations indicate no change in intent but align better with state requirements and eliminate terms that cannot be objectively defined.
The determination “to preserve and protect farmland and support the right to farm” remains.
The updated definitions section clarifies that cultivation of cannabis is not currently included in agriculture under the zoning regulation, but that maple syrup production and mushroom harvesting are. The April 11 Zoom meeting included a presentation on what needs to be decided and enacted by Nov. 1 regarding cannabis growing, manufacture and retail. The commission is seeking public input via a survey inserted in the May Chronicle or via Landuse@cornwallct.gov. If P&Z takes no action to include new regulations for cannabis, then those for similar agricultural, product packaging, food and beverage production and retail sales would apply. There would probably be benefits to Cornwall from a 3% sales tax returned to towns hosting retail outlets that must be earmarked for civic and charitable purposes.
Many definitions have been tweaked. Most of these are minor, for example, the length of a parking space is 18 feet rather than 20, reflecting planning standards long in practice. Others would seem to bring the regulations into alignment with current attitudes. For example, a dwelling unit is now defined as occupied by “one household” rather than “one family.”
For now, town- or nonprofit-sponsored lots remain permitted only by special permit in residential zones of three- and five-acre lots. But Timell said this restriction could be revisited to promote affordable housing.
Among the new provisions is an extension of the protections of historic structures to include tribal, cultural and environmental resources, a useful amendment for Cornwall that is also consistent with changes in state law.
People contemplating changes to their properties that would expand housing opportunities or provide added income will find it easier to parse the rules, which consolidate requirements for accessory apartments, conversion of single-family dwellings and attainable housing cuts in a single location. The regulations for home businesses adopted in 2021 following much discussion are also incorporated, as are requirements for uses such as campgrounds, bed and breakfasts and affordable multifamily housing.
Parking requirements are conveniently laid out in a table that indicates the required minimum parking for each permitted use. Another section provides details on driveways, erosion and sediment control, storm water management and water supply — giving contractors a convenient overview of information crucial to their work.
An addendum lists the topics and dates of past amendments. These will no doubt be further explored in Timell’s forthcoming history of Cornwall zoning. She has gotten as far as the late 1980s in her research.