Although two Town Plan and Zoning Commissioners saw amending the zoning regulations to invite a mixed-use development as an opportunity to revitalize the struggling Firelite Shopping Center, three commissioners feared the use could be too intense for the area.
The application for a text change to allow residential units in the town’s shopping center districts was presented by Attorney Marjorie Shansky on behalf of 35 Old Tavern Road LLC, owner of the six-acre Firelite Shopping Center. The zone change would have allowed up to 15 units per acre, possibly as many as 90 one and two-bedroom apartments at the Firelite site. The amended regulations would have required the ground floor, or 25 percent of the center to be dedicated commercial space and the two upper levels to be residential. In her presentation, Shansky pointed out that amending the regulations is in keeping with the updated Town Plan of Conservation and Development which seeks to diversify housing to include more affordable and senior housing in town.
The plan was denied after four months of public hearings that began in June and several hours of discussion among the commissioners before the vote took place. Commissioners even hired Glenn Chalder of Planimetrics to provide planning assistance to draft the amendment in the town’s best interest. According to TPZC Chair Ozzie Parente, among the changes to the developer’s proposal was a requirement that ten percent of the residential units be dedicated as affordable to comply with state mandates, and restrictions that would make the amendment specific to the Firelite Center. It also clearly defines the area as having a “town center-like feel” with sidewalks, pedestrian walkways and landscaping. ‘We also wanted to make sure any new regulations would not be applicable to properties on the Boston Post Road,” Parente said.
A handful of residents, most of who lived in the vicinity of Racebrook Road, attended the meetings and wrote letters opposing the project. Most cited increased traffic and congestion at the five-way intersection bordering the shopping center. Jim Hatrick, a third-generation Orange native, said a mixed use development would create “more traffic, more sirens and more lights in what is already the busiest part of town.” “This isn’t an ox and plow plan anymore; this is a whole other realm. Think about this and use your heart,” he urged the Commission.
Commissioners Judy Smith, Ralph Aschettino and Kevin Cornell voted against the plan citing the change would allow a use too intensive for the area. “I don’t think a town as small as Orange needs to be all things to all people,” Cornell said. “We don’t need to provide every product that’s out there.” Smith felt that it is up to the commission to curb possible intensive projects in the planning stages. “This is the time to consider a different product; it is an amendment for a use never before allowed. I like the concept but the problem is the intensity and density,” she said. “To potentially have 90 units on six acres is not my idea of a town center. I agree we need to evolve as a town but to go from what’s there now to 90 residential units is a drastic change with a negative impact on the surrounding community.”
Aschettino maintained the zone change would invite a project that was inconsistent with his vision of what a town center should be – a central location that might include bars, shops and restaurants where people gather. “This is an apartment complex,” he said. “It’s a residential development disguised as a commercial development.”
Parente and Commissioner Paul Kaplan had a different view of the application, stating that particularly after adopting Chalder’s revisions, a site plan submitted by a developer would look very much like the commission’s vision for the area. “I see this as an opportunity. If we are not prepared to approve this or something like this, we may never get a chance for a town center,’ Parente said. “This is a chance to open the door to something new, something more vibrant and successful in a spot that has been beaten down and underutilized for so long.” Parente countered commissioners’ concerns about density by stressing that the plan before them was only for a text amendment, and not an actual site plan. “Safety and traffic issues are concerns that would be addressed by a developer in a site plan proposal. We would have the chance to deny a site plan down the road if traffic and safety studies identified the project could not support the 15 units per acre,” he said.
Robert Sachs, a principal in 35 Old Tavern Road Associates, purchased the six-acre property in August of 2018 for $3.8 million. Once a thriving, busy center that housed eateries and retail shops, it is now vacant and slated for demolition.
By Laura Fantarella – Orange Town News Correspondent