Wallingford ZBA rejects Choate plans for new admission building

WALLINGFORD — The Zoning Board of Appeals this week shot down plans for a new admissions building at Choate Rosemary Hall that would have included underground parking, keeping the property at the intersection of Christian and North Elm Street mostly green.

The proposal needed a variance from the town’s 40-foot setback requirement. The school’s officials told the board that the main reason for the hardship is that the property line skews 12 feet from the road just in front of that property, making it impossible to keep to the 40-foot requirement. The plan instead called for a setback of 13 feet from the road.

But board members rejected that argument, saying that the school had ample alternatives on the expansive campus and that adding another building that is non-compliant with zoning regulations is unacceptable.

The new admission building “has become a critical element in the long range planning and success of Choate,” its attorney Dennis Ceneviva told the board.

“This location allows us to build this building with an underground parking lot,” he said. “It allows us to keep a very large piece of land green, with no asphalt, no retaining walls, nothing, where you would typically see a large parking lot.”

It also would have allowed them to eliminate another parking lot, returning that site to grass, Ceneviva said.

It was the second time the school was before the board asking for the hardship variance. In August, Choate presented plans that included a three-foot setback, but withdrew that request and came back with the 13-foot setback. That still wasn’t enough to convince the board that there was sufficient hardship to grant the variance.

“Why do you need an underground parking lot when you already have a parking lot?” asked board Vice Chairman Raymond Rys.

The school saw the construction of the new admission building as an opportunity to get rid of the old lot and make it a green spot. The school has outgrown the space currently used as admission offices, which was a former infirmary, Ceneviva said. “Instead of piecing together new space, we want an attractive building in the center of the campus that is compatible with all the other buildings at that site,” he said.

“It’s not that we are ignoring your regulations,” he said. “We are here because we recognize that we need your assistance. This is the location that fits best after years of looking at what alternatives exist. When they looked at it from a strategic perspective over the last couple of years, this location seemed to make the most sense. It works best moving forward and becoming an identity building, a very important building to their overall development.”

“It’s obvious the admission building should be easy to find and it should be located in the center of our campus so that when prospective families arrive at the corner of Christian Street and North Elm Street they know where to go,” said Choate CFO Patrick Durbin . The location was chosen because the building would fit in the neighborhood aesthetic of a New England town, he said.

“We are very lucky and proud to be in such a vibrant town as Wallingford. Just as Wallingford touts Choate on its website, Choate touts Wallingford on our own website,” he said. “If we were to build the building by conforming to the setback, this building would be the outlier as nearly every building on North Elm Street between Center Street and High Street sits closer to the road and it would make this building be the one that sticks out as nonconforming to the neighborhood.”

But after hearing opposition from the public, the board members agreed that there was not enough of a hardship to qualify the application for a variance.

“Choate Rosemary Hall, without a doubt, has put Wallingford on the map,” said board member Bruce Conroy. “Visitors enjoy a pristine-looking campus who supports local businesses, merchants and restaurants. North Elm Street and Christian Street is the most feared intersection in Wallingford and you cannot have enough eyes to safely navigate through that intersection. There is no real hardship to have a building of this size on the site and there are plenty of other open spaces where it can go. I cannot support this application.”

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