The Mansfield Town Council voted unanimously to call on the Planning and Zoning Commission to review their ordinance regarding fraternal organizations Monday night.
Town Attorney Kevin Deneen responded to a request from the council to review the Planning and Zoning Commission’s all-encompassing definition of a fraternal organization that effectively barred all organizations from meeting in residential areas.
Deneen was unable to provide a conclusive opinion due to the variety of legal precedents on related issues.
“The precedent is really all over the place…Even within similar circumstances, the decisional law is all over the place,” Deneen said.
Deneen said there is a general lack of cases that have been litigated on these issues.
“Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Connecticut Supreme Court haven’t given us a lot of guidance as to where that line can be drawn,” Deneen said. “The Supreme Court hasn’t resolved that tension (between the right of planning and zoning commissions and people’s rights) yet.”
Councilman Ben Shaiken said he hopes the town can resolve this issue without having to go to court.
“We could build a hill to die on on this issue and potentially end up in court,” Shaiken said. “But (this is) something that maybe has a fix that, we can make through the language that gets more directly at what the intent was.”
Shaiken said the town already has nuisance laws that are enforced against rowdy parties.
“We have a lot of tools in our enforcement toolbox without making any gathering at any moment basically anywhere an issue for any purpose,” Shaiken said.
Councilwoman Toni Moran said she worries that the ordinance affects too many groups it did not mean to target.
“While I am fairly secure that neither my book club nor my sewing group would result in a call to the police for a neighborhood disturbance… I really am a little concerned about the overreach in this.” Moran said. It’s not that I’m questioning the idea that such a regulation is legitimate I just think the language of this may sweep in groups that are not intended to be swept in.”
Moran said the ordinance should only deal with disruptive groups.
“We are really looking for groups that have a real history in this town of misbehavior and they tend to be… students,” Moran said.
Councilman Peter Kochenburger, who introduced the motion, said he thinks the ordinance was not a good move in general.
“I think it’s a matter of public policy. We do not want to have a law that prohibits any organization from ever meeting… in any private home in this town,” Kochenburger said. “I don’t think that’s good public policy, even if it was constitutional.”
Councilman David Freudmann said he objects to the selective enforcement of the ordinance against student renters as well as the fact that it tries to modify their behavior.
“Zoning regulations work best when they’re confined to use of property, not to behavior, and you’re looking here to control behavior more than use,” Freudmann said.
Shaiken said while he thinks the ordinance is too broad, the town must still confront the issue of student parties.
“My personal opinion is that (the town) may have overstepped and gone a little bit too far. But at the same time, I don’t think this is a way of the council expressing our desire to have parties in every neighborhood,” Shaiken said.
Mayor Paul Shapiro said he had a meeting with UConn student leaders from organizations such as the Interfraternity Council and had a “good, open discussion” with them.
The Town Council also discussed UConn’s project to construct a multi-level garage that would create one thousand parking spots on the northwest side of campus.
Director of Planning and Development Linda Painter said she and other representatives from the town discussed how the project could impact parking in Mansfield.
“We expressed concern during the campus master planning process about how we manage parking off-campus and how we make sure this doesn’t result in starting seeing people (come) off campus to park in places that are more convenient…than that far periphery,” Painter said.
Shaiken said he has noticed an uptick in traffic along Discovery Drive with the closing of North Eagleville Road this semester.
“I just want to make sure, as we add all of that parking capacity on that side of campus…that we’re thinking about traffic patterns for that part of town,” Shaiken said. “As we add places for people to park on that side, I hope they will view the traffic issues that we all have in the morning… in that light and make sure they’ve got a plan for it.”
Kochenburger raised concerns over the possible disruption to the aesthetic of the campus.
“A parking garage, ideally, should not be visible,” Kochenburger said. “UConn has spent a fair amount of money on beautifying that area and it would be a shame to spoil it.”