DEEP RIVER — The Planning and Zoning Commission voted Thursday to amend zoning regulations to allow a private school to open in the village commercial district.
The amendment was in response to a petition from the Connecticut Coastal Academy, which is looking to purchase the former Citizens Bank building on Main Street.
The Coastal Academy, a private, state-approved special education school, is currently based in Essex, where it serves about 25 students from around the state.
According to Pamela Potemri, the school’s executive director, the facility mainly serves secondary students with learning needs that exceed what traditional high schools could offer. Many of them, she said, are hands-on learners, so the academy has a strong focus on trades, particularly building and construction, as well as culinary.
“They’re really kids that we need to reengage in education and get them the skill set that they’re going to need to be productive citizens in our community,” Potemri told the Planning and Zoning Commission in March.
Although the academy is a special education school, Potemri told CT Examiner, most of the students are grappling with language disabilities like dyslexia or high-functioning autism. As a result, she said, they don’t qualify for adult services after graduation the way others might.
“They are the future in our community that are going to be unemployed and underemployed if we don’t do this right,” Potemri told the commission.
In a meeting on Thursday, commission members debated whether to allow the exemption. A few members said they were concerned that allowing a special exemption would open the door for other institutions that the town might not want in the commercial district, and they would have no legal recourse to deny them.
But Chair Tony Bolduc and First Selectman Angus McDonald both noted that the commission would still have to approve all applicants individually before they could operate in town.
McDonald, who spoke in favor of the school, told CT Examiner that the owner of the property had been trying to sell it for a long time. He added that while a school wouldn’t pay the same taxes as a commercial business, he felt it was a good use for the building and, hopefully, would bring young people and teachers into the community.
Potemri told CT Examiner that the former Citizens Bank building was ideal for several reasons – it’s handicap accessible, the former drive-thru would provide a private entrance for students, and it’s on the route for public transportation. She also noted that the building looked like a school from the outside.
“Deep River’s a beautiful place and it’s safe, and it’s a good place for our kids. So to me, it made perfect sense,” Potemri said.
Another advantage to the building, she said, is its access to the downtown commercial district, as many of her students take internships within the community.
“You want them to be able to be employable and self-sufficient, and all of those things and give them a leg up on employment and school opportunities so that they’re successful,” Potemri said.
But the proposal has also received pushback from the Economic Development Commission, which said it was unclear whether the school would add to the tax rolls. The commission submitted a letter of non-support to Planning and Zoning.
“We believe any change to [the town’s] zoning regulations potentially impacting the economic growth and expansion of the town, be referred to a public vote, for which the town’s residents to decide,” wrote Economic Development Commission Vice Chair Nicholas Kornacki.
Planning and Zoning Commission member Fred Jordan said at the Thursday meeting that he was against the idea of having a school in a commercial zone, arguing that an institution downtown that would be “shuttered at night” would not benefit the town.
“We have very, very little commercial district, and I think that needs to be guarded at all costs,” Jordan said.
Potemri told CT Examiner that the school is for-profit, and would be on the town’s tax rolls.
“The fact is that we will be paying taxes to the town of Deep River,” she said. “By owning the building as opposed to leasing a building, certainly we bring it – tax base to the town. And I get it – from a very practical, economic development standpoint, it’s a valid point.”
Planning and Zoning Commission member Mike Dinello also brought up concerns about traffic, noting there have been several accidents on Main Street, and asking whether bringing children into the area could create a liability for the town. Other members asked whether the school would generate more traffic.
Michael Bonnaro, attorney for the school, noted in March that the school currently had 12 cars dropping students off, all in cars or minivans, plus 15 staff members. The academy does not use school buses.
“A school would certainly generate some traffic, but so would a really popular restaurant. So would housing. And so did a bank,” McDonald told CT Examiner.
Planning and Zoning Commission members Alan Paradis and Marian Staye spoke in favor of the school.
“I think this could be a tremendous asset for Deep River. In my opinion, as a citizen, I’d say it would be a welcome program,” Paradis said at the March meeting.
Paradis also said he felt the school would fit well in the area, which is close to the elementary school, the library and the Youth Services Bureau.
“If a portion of this program is internships and engagement with the community, it being nestled in our commercial district, I think is very opportune,” he said.
Staye and McDonald both said Thursday that having a greater variety of institutions on Main Street would add to the vibrancy of the area.
“The diversity of a main street really makes a main street more vibrant, and a school … can add to that vibrancy in multiple ways,” McDonald said.
Potemri told CT Examiner that the academy had negotiated a purchase price with the owner, but did not disclose the cost since documents have yet to be signed.
Mark Marino, current owner of the Citizens Bank, also declined to comment on the purchase price, but said he was pleased that the building was being bought by the school.
Marino said he tried for nearly two years to attract a nice restaurant into the building, but was unable to get a buyer for the 12,000-square-foot space.
“A building like that cannot sit vacant. It’ll deteriorate,” he said. “It has to have life in it. It has to be used.”
Potemri told members of the Planning and Zoning Committee in March that the most important thing for her was that her students would be welcome in the area.
“I don’t want to be in the middle of controversy. I don’t want my students to be in the middle of controversy. I want them to feel welcome in Deep River and by the community,” she said. “They have dealt with a lot of rejection, historically, in the past, and that’s just not something I want to put them through.”
Commission members were quick to reassure.
“Going back in history, the town has always been welcoming to students from various backgrounds,” said commission member Jonathan Kastner. “I think that Deep River has always welcomed young people.”
The academy still needs approval from Planning and Zoning to open at the Citizens Bank site. Potemri said she hopes to open the academy this fall.
Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.