Washington residents worried zoning changes could affect town events

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox
A musician in a field of wildflowers at the Five Senses Festival in Litchfield County

A musician in a field of wildflowers at the Five Senses Festival in Litchfield County

Renee Jaworski / Contributed photo /

WASHINGTON — Dozens of residents are fighting against a proposed zoning revision that, if passed, they claim could substantially restrict public events in town, particularly a popular local festival.

One of the many stipulations in the proposed revision, called the “Proposed Revision to the Washington Zoning Regulations — Section 12.8 Temporary Uses,” is to restrict special events in residential/farm zones to two, one-day events per year, or one, seven-consecutive day event, and require permits and parking plans.

An event this revision could jeopardize, residents argue, is the annual Five Senses Festival. The festival supports multiple nonprofits and local art, dance, culture and school exhibitions, and brings art and dance and music to town. It requires two weekends at a minimum to be viable, according to a lengthy letter that about 100 residents have signed, explaining in detail their concerns.

Additionally, if the revision passes, many art, drama and culture events would be restricted to two venues per year at any home, farm, land trust, library, museum or club.

In a followup to the signed letter, one resident who signed it said if the revisions are approved, “the future of our farms, orchards, vineyards, museums, library, land trusts, nonprofits, (and) fundraising performances will be curtailed and threatened. Organic or other farming, apple picking and grape growing cannot sustain farms, they must and have evolved to survive. They are the symbol of rural Litchfield County.”

Additionally, the letter refers to 70 pages of individual letters from residents who expressed strong disagreement against the proposed revision.

The Zoning Commission has held several public hearings on this issue, which were all were attended by about 100 people. The last hearing closed Jan. 12, but a special meeting is scheduled for Feb. 8 at 7:30 p.m. on Zoom, to continue deliberations. A vote could take place at that time.

Washington First Selectman Jim Brinton said he’s against the proposed revisions. According to Binton, the issue came about as a result of the Five Senses Festival.

“The festival is the root of this whole proposed regulation. After the (first) festival, the neighbors had some concerns about the noise. They went to the Zoning Commission,” said Brinton, adding that the commission then started looking into the regulations for what’s allowed in town. “They keep trying to tweak it and tweak it and tweak it, and what it comes down to is, it’s tailored to the Five Senses Festival. It’s in a residential district but it’s a farm.”

Brinton said while he supports the neighbors’ concerns and “what the zoning board feels is best for the town, it just seemed implausable to me that all of these residents and organizations and civic groups be ignored.”

He said what really concerns him is if there’s an issue with a group, event or neighbors, “we seem to skip over the most fundamental step, which is a simple communication between the two parties.”

He added while he believes the Zoning Commission has good intentions with the reason for the revision, “it’s just misguided. We can taylor this to address the issues and still continue with the festival.”

One resident in support of the proposed revision, however, is former Zoning Commission member Valerie Friedman, who said there are plenty of public facilities in town to hold the events in question.

“When you own or buy property in a residential zone, there is the expectation that you’re going to have peace and quiet in your neighborhood,” said Friedman, who said she’s not a neighbor to any of the festivals or events that are in question. “We have private schools, parks, public schools, libraries, churches and clubs. We have a lot of other options, so why are we being so lenient when it comes to allowing people to impose on their neighbors?”

Nick Solley, chairman of the Zoning Commission, said the group is now in a deliberation period and can’t comment on the topic.

“We cannot and will not speak with anyone about the revisions. ... Only after we have voted up or down on this matter can we discuss publicly about the proposed regulation changes.”

Brinton said both parties should be able to form a fair resolution that would satisfy all.

“There is definitely a middle ground here,” he said. “They can achieve the goals of both the neighbors and retaining the Five Senses. We skip over that simple step of communication and go right to government.”