A Derby commission on Tuesday approved a change to the city’s zoning regulations that could allow a former nursing home to be used as a high school dormitory.
About 100 people showed up to a public hearing on the change Tuesday after a flyer was distributed anonymously to residents around Marshall Lane which decried the zone change as “ILL-CONCEIVED” for the residential zone.
The flyer warned the zoning text tweak could hurt property values and result in 175 foreign students “running around your neighborhood.”
The document also warned that the students could attend Derby Public Schools, which would have a major impact on school costs.
However, the people running the dormitory have said the foreign students will be attending elite private schools in the area.
Article continues after document.
Many residents who spoke during the hearing echoed the concerns raised by the flyer.
The commission’s chairman, Theodore J. Estwan Jr., said the flyer did not reflect changes made to the proposal by the commission after the past two months of public comments.
He called the document “fake news on steroids” after Tuesday’s meeting.
The zoning change was prompted by “informal” discussions earlier this year between the Planning and Zoning Commission and a company that is eyeing the former Marshall Lane Manor at 101 Marshall Lane as a possible dormitory for high school students from other countries.
The change approved Tuesday does not automatically allow those plans to go forward — an application will have to be reviewed by the commission and meet a stringent set of standards.
A lawyer representing the company said after the meeting he hopes to have an application for the dorm filed by the P&Z’s next meeting Oct. 17, which means a public hearing concerning the property itself may happen some time in November.
The commission has been holding public hearings since August to discuss whether to add “educational dormitory residence” as a special exception use within the city’s “R-3” residential zone.
Watertown-based APEX International Education Partners (AIEP) is in negotiations to purchase the Marshall Lane property from Simonetti Realty Inc.
The Simonetti family of Shelton ran the nursing home from 1973 until its closing in 2015. Anthony Simonetti, the former owner, is the chairman of the Shelton Republican Town Committee.
AIEP helps “U.S. secondary educational institutions with the recruiting and hosting of international students from Asia,” according to the company’s website.
The students would attend high schools — mostly private — throughout the area, but live in the building on Marshall Lane.
David Guerrera, the company’s co-founder, previously appeared at a Derby Planning and Zoning Commission in April to gauge whether the city would be receptive to the concept.
At the time he said most of the students would be attending private schools in the area. The company currently arranges for students to attend Laurelton Hall in Milford, Notre Dame in Fairfield, along with Sacred Heart Academy and Hamden Hall in Hamden.
Private buses and vans would be used to get the students to and from school.
The dorm would be an attractive proposition for foreign students who want to take English as a second language classes in addition to attending highly regarded American private schools.
The students who chose to come to the U.S. are serious about their studies, Guerrera said, and come here with the long-term goal of enrolling in a U.S. college or university.
Click here for AIEP’s Facebook page.
Click here for more information from a previous story.
More than 20 people spoke during Tuesday’s hearing. The theme was the same — a dormitory for high school students in the middle of a neighborhood full of single-family houses is a terrible idea.
Residents have suggested that if the building can no longer be used as a retirement home, then it should be redeveloped as single-family houses to conform with the rest of the neighborhood.
Belleview Drive resident Maureen Kelleher raised a number of concerns, including whether the change could open the door for an organization to bring refugees to the city and go to the city’s schools on Derby’s dime.
Estwan and the commission’s lawyer, Marjorie Shansky, said visa requirements and state laws mean the school district would have to approve any such students. Even if they did, Shansky said the students would have to pay tuition to attend public schools.
David Kopjanski, a Franklin Avenue resident and a former building official with the city, submitted a number of suggested revisions to the commission’s proposed changes.
He wanted the zoners to restrict the change only to “adaptive reuses of convalescent homes,” meaning it would only apply to the Marshall Lane property. As written, City Engineer Ryan McEvoy said the change could possibly apply to eight properties in R-3 zones.
“I think it would be smart to walk before we run on this,” Kopjanski said.
Most of the residents who spoke during the hearing were skeptical about the proposed change. Several expressed suspicion that the zoners had already made up their minds to allow the dorm on Marshall Lane.
Estwan said repeatedly that if the zoning change were approved, AIEP would have to return to the commission with a more specific application — which could be rejected.
“We could still deny it if we don’t like the devil in the details,” he said.
David Humphreys Road resident Mike Alberta didn’t buy it. His exchange with Estwan typified Tuesday’s hearing.
“You said there wasn’t an application, but there is an application,” he said.
Estwan noted that the commission had only had “informal discussions” with AIEP — and that the discussions were noticed on the commission’s agendas and summarized in its minutes.
“There is no application,” he said. “Do we expect an application if this passes? Yes.”
“I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been at a few meetings and I’ve got a lot of runaround and I don’t like it,” Alberta said as others voiced agreement.
“You haven’t been to my meetings,” Estwan said. “This is the third month of public hearing and we’ve already taken comments from the public into consideration and made changes to the document.”
For example, the revised regulations capped the number of students at 150, Estwan said.
Hillcrest Avenue resident Diane Goodman referred to the anonymous flyer, saying many of the people in attendance were there because they “got scared by an orange piece of paper.”
“A neighbor came to me and said ‘Are you going to this meeting tonight to fight against what’s coming in Marshall Lane Manor?’ There’s nothing coming yet in Marshall Lane Manor, people, that is the truth,” Goodman said. “He has stated it ad nauseam and you have practically all called him a liar.”
Dominick Thomas, AIEP’s lawyer, said the only part of the flyer that wasn’t “totally untrue” was where it listed the time and place of Tuesday’s meeting.
“You’ve all been suckered in by somebody who decided to invent fake news,” Thomas said.
He said the dormitory proposal would generate more tax revenue for the city than putting homes there.
And he promised to set up a neighborhood meeting for residents of the area to ask more questions about the proposal.
After discussing minor tweaks to the proposal for about 20 minutes, the zoners approved the zoning text change unanimously.
They noted that many other “special exception” uses are already allowed in R-3 zones, and aren’t necessarily as beneficial to the city tax-wise as dormitories would be.
The full list of special exceptions: nurseries, home occupations, places of worship, schools, libraries, public utility buildings, public buildings, convalescent homes, and child day-care centers.
Commission member Glenn Stevens said the change allows the city “to be proactive, to open our minds and eyes to another possibility for this property.”
“Maybe if somebody makes an application we won’t approve it because it’s not a fit,” he said. “But at least it’s an opportunity to have someone come before us and listen to what they have to propose as another use for this property, because the only other options I see weren’t good either.”
Kelleher, who attended the previous public hearings on the zone text change proposal, expressed similar sentiments after the vote.
“I’m not necessarily against the proposal, I just want to make sure that it’s controlled, which I think with most of the changes that they’ve put in based on what I’ve asked for, what Dave (Kopjanski) asked for, I feel that there’s as much control as there can be,” she said.
The text of the proposed changes handed out at Tuesday’s meeting is embedded below.