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Planning Board rejects zoning change for CFM apartment project

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A housing developer’s plans to convert a former food distribution center into a 30-unit apartment complex are in jeopardy after the city’s Planning Board unanimously rejected his request for a zoning change Monday.

City planners opposed the request to rezone 576-580 W. Main St. and two other nearby properties from light industrial to neighborhood business district, which is needed because the project involves housing. They also tabled a request for a special-use permit for the project at the former CFM Food Distributors, proposed by Back Bay Enterprises, Alexandria Bay.

The Planning Board’s decision comes at a time when area economic development agencies have been in a rush to find more rental housing to fill a gap for Fort Drum soldiers returning from Afghanistan.

Four people spoke against the project, saying the zoning change would interfere with their plans for nearby properties.

Real estate broker Robert Nelson, who represents Edmund Street Realty LLC, Cumberland Foreside, Maine, told the Planning Board the zoning change would affect his ability to market his clients’ warehouse that abuts the CFM property.He also noted the CFM property includes important railroad spurs that have to remain accessible to his clients’ property.

In a letter to the Planning Board, Helen Cleaves, principal of Edmund Street Realty, asked that the board not grant the zoning change because it would be “incompatible” with her property. The warehouse has been at the location since 1906 and “continues to be served by heavy truck traffic,” she wrote.

“We should be able to use our property for its intended use without the constant fear of someone shutting us down because it does not fit in with quiet residential living,” she wrote.

Ten years ago, the 37,000- square-foot warehouse, in the family business for years, was the source of controversy when neighbors complained that it stored 30,000 tons of salt.

Janet M. Abrams said she was worried the zoning change would interfere with her plans to restore a building at 560 W. Main St. She also said that residents of the apartments would be faced with noise from her and other businesses.

“I don’t think it makes much planning sense,” board chairwoman Sara S. Freda said, noting that the area has historically been industrial.

During a presentation of the project’s site plans, Ms. Freda said that the plans should have more parking for residents and that a maximum of 27 units, not the planned 30, could be included in the project.

Despite the negative vote, the Watertown City Council is expected to schedule a public hearing on the zoning change for next month. Council members would then either accept the Planning Board’s recommendation or approve the zoning change.

After the vote, Ralph Wagoner, who is working with his brother, Hillary S. “Bumper” Wagoner, on the project, asked city planners what they could do about the situation. He said his family purchased the property several weeks ago and didn’t know the project would cause such a stir.

“There are some loose ends,” Ms. Freda said, suggesting the developer come back next month with revised site plans.

After the meeting, Mr. Wagoner told Ms. Abrams that rental units are the best economic fit for the community because of the need for housing. She said she understood that, but maybe some other location would be a better fit.

Under their plans, the front of the CFM building would include 30 one- and two-bedroom apartments. They said they hoped the project would begin in the spring. The center of the 27,000-square-foot building would be demolished. They have no plans for the freezer area in the back of the building.

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