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Stonington hearing set on West Marine proposal

STONINGTON — After being canceled by snow, the Planning and Zoning Commission’s public hearing on a proposal to build a boating and fishing supply store on Maritime Drive in Mystic has been rescheduled for Tuesday at Mystic Middle School, at 7:30 p.m.

The California-based chain retail outlet, West Marine, is now located nearby on Clara Drive off Coogan Boulevard, near McQuade’s Marketplace.

Sea Research Foundation, the parent company of Mystic Aquarium, owns the land and has applied to build a 13,000-square-foot retail building on 1.7 acres of the 11.1-acre site that is now used as overflow parking for the aquarium during the busy tourist season.

The site, which is located across Coogan Boulevard from the Aquarium, at the intersection of Maritime Drive and Coogan Boulevard, is accessed through Maritime Drive. The land currently is zoned for manufacturing, but in August the Planning and Zoning Commission voted 4-1 to approve an amendment to the zoning regulations that would allow for stand-alone retail stores in certain manufacturing zones.

The change the commission approved would allow retail stores with less than 15,000 square feet of floor space in M-1 manufacturing zones located within a 1-mile radius of an interstate highway exit. Such development projects would be required to get a special use permit from the commission in order to proceed. In addition to the six total lots on Maritime Drive, only one other property — a triangular parcel near Exit 92 owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation — would be affected by the change.

William Sweeney, an attorney representing the Aquarium, said in August that West Marine is seeking the new building because it wants to expand its offerings in this area and the current store is too small. The retailer had hoped to be open for the upcoming boating season.

In conjunction with this application, Sea Research has a separate application pending to create another overflow parking lot that would replace the one that would be taken by West Marine. If approved, the three-acre gravel parking lot would be located on a 10.5-acre site that is also across Coogan Boulevard from the aquarium, but on the other side of Maritime Drive.

At an August public hearing on the amendment to allow retail in the manufacturing zone, several residents, including three of the owners of Olde Mistick Village and Economic Development Commission Chairman Blunt White, spoke in favor of the proposal.

Speaking in opposition were Tom Collier, a lawyer, and his client, Michael McQuade, who owns the current West Marine building.

McQuade pointed out that there is plenty of available vacant retail space in the town, a point that commission member Eric Beverly also noted. Beverly is an alternate member of the commission, but was seated as a regular member to fill a vacancy at the August hearing. He cast the lone dissenting vote on the amendment question.

Collier raised issues ranging from additional traffic that could be generated by retail on Maritime Drive to the potential for resubdivision of the existing lots to allow for more development than the commission would anticipate on the land in question.

Collier said the amendment, though presented by Sweeney as relatively minor, actually amounted to a significant zone change that could have unintended consequences.

“You are expanding the use in this zone, so use your common sense,” Collier said at the August hearing. “Let’s not put technicality over reality here. You’re allowing more retail. This is going to become a strip-mall street. It isn’t that right now. Is that something you think meets the standards and the expectations of the town of Stonington? I would be surprised if it did.” Collier also urged the commission to take its time reviewing the proposal, rather than approving it quickly to satisfy the needs of West Marine.

The commissioners who voted for the change were unpersuaded by Collier’s arguments, noting that extensive wetlands on the lots on Maritime Drive would limit the space available for retail stores. They also noted that the change to the regulations would not prevent traditional manufacturing uses on the property, nor would it take away the commission’s authority to reject a proposal once the developer applies for a special use permit.

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