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A Manchester, Conn., church, Gary Rounselville proclaims, is making an unholy pact with a competing liquor store — one to which the town planning and zoning board should never have given its blessing. The developers of Gateway Plaza have offered to give the neighboring Church of the Living God a 5.2-acre parcel of abutting land in order to mollify the church and forestall its opposition to a new liquor store in the mixed-use office and retail development. Manchester zoning regulations require a 200-foot buffer between liquor stores and churches, but the zoning board approved the swap. If the land transfer goes through, the liquor store will wind up just 50 feet away from church-owned land. In ruling in the dispute last month, a Superior Court judge found it’s nonsensical for a town to approve a plan one day that it knows will be illegal the next. EYES CLOSED? At the zoning hearing on the plaza in 2001, Rounselville, who owns the nearby M&R Liquors and five other Connecticut package stores, argued that, from his personal experience, liquor stores generate more traffic and auto exhaust than other businesses. Speaking for his company, Rounselville contended that the zoning board had a duty to look into the foreseeable future when administering the town’s planning and zoning ordinance. He also warned the panel that it was ignoring an imminent violation of the 200-foot separation requirements. He lost on each argument, and appealed to Hartford, Conn., Superior Court. David S. Rintoul, of Glastonbury, Conn.’s Brown, Paindiris & Scott, represented M&R before Judge Robert E. Beach Jr. Rintoul argued the developer was asking the zoning board “to approve a use today that Gateway was telling them would be non-conforming tomorrow.” The zoning board, Rintoul argued in his brief, was “closing its eyes to the inevitable” — that a liquor store would be operating within 50 feet of a lot used for church purposes. Rintoul also pointed out that a lawyer for Gateway had conceded to the commission that the church land and the liquor store would be less than 200 feet away once the land transfer was completed. But attorney Leonard Jacobs, representing Gateway, backed off from that concession, and argued that M&R couldn’t assume the “transfer lot” would merge and become a part of the church lot for zoning purposes. The lot is currently not used for anything, and the church could subsequently use it for “a residence, a parking lot, or leave it as open space,” said Jacobs, of Manchester’s Jacobs, Walker, Rice & Basche. The zoning board, he added, would need a crystal ball to make decisions on the basis of unknown future uses. Even before the liquor store opens for business, the church could sell the parcel, or put it to use for a thrift store. Either of these alternatives would keep the parcel from being “a lot used � for a place of worship,” he said FIRST IMPRESSION ISSUE In his Oct. 21 decision, Beach examined the record and noted that the town zoning commission was told the church planned to use the parcel for parking and driveways. He noted that there was apparent concern among members of the town zoning board who were troubled by the issue. There was good reason to be uneasy, the judge noted. While he found no prior Connecticut case on point, the general rules of interpreting ordinances “lead me to hold that the commission used an erroneous legal standard in deciding the issue,” he wrote. It makes no sense, Beach held, to think the Manchester zoning law was set up to approve a situation that “would be in violation of the regulations from the moment it exists.” While there may be gray areas in other cases, the plans under consideration “expressly contemplated the transfer of the lot to the church.” If there is not 200-foot buffer zone between the church lot and the liquor store premises, it’s not within the P&Z board’s discretion to waive the requirement, and the church’s acquiescence is completely irrelevant, he determined. Beach did side with the town board on its decision that the liquor store was not an unreasonable air pollution threat. On the question of the 200-foot separation, he sent the issue back to the board with orders to apply the zoning ordinance in view of the development project as a whole — and to use ordinary common sense.

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