141 Danbury Rd. Moves Closer to Approval at P&Z

The Monday, Oct. 25 meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission was dominated by discussion of 141 Danbury Rd., the proposed 173-unit apartment complex that was the subject of three ongoing hearings. On the heels of that discussion, a routine update on the Wilton Center Master Plan gave way to an animated exchange between several Commissioners about the role of the Commission and the collective development currently underway or proposed for Wilton.

GOOD Morning Wilton has covered the evolution of the proposed project since preliminary reviews were conducted by the P&Z and by the Architectural Review Board last June, as well as its most recent hearing at P&Z in September when the project seemed to gain momentum. Monday evening represented one step closer to approval for the proposal.

141 Danbury Road

Located at the former site of the Melissa and Doug corporate office, the developer has proposed a new overlay zoning district, to be called DE-5R, and requested a special permit. The application materials, including detailed architectural and landscaping plans, can be seen on the town website.

The hearing began with a discussion of the updated elevation renderings presented by the applicant. Commission Chairman Rick Tomasetti kicked off a lengthy discussion of the relationship between the parking garage and the residential floors, and the need to better ground the building, especially on its western side.

“I would challenge you to find a way to organize the parking that is more orthogonal, or regular, with the building,” he said, pointing to several options related to rationalizing the floorplate and adding additional skirting that could help resolve the architectural shortcomings of the design.

Samuel B. Fuller, the developer of the project, acknowledged the Chairman’s suggestion as a “great idea” and agreed to incorporate it into the design, as a condition of approval if necessary.

One critique raised by the Architectural Review Board (ARB) was quickly dismissed. Referring to the use of brick on the front façade of the building, the ARB had urged the applicant to use “real brick.” This apparent confusion was sparked by what Fuller called a bad rendering, which failed to demonstrate the geometry of the front-facing stone ledge and the brick surround above. He confirmed that the depth of the brick would be fairly substantial, as would the returns in the windows.

The topic of neighborhood character and architectural unity was raised several times, in particular by Commissioner Florence Johnson, who objected to the assertion by Lisa Feinberg, the applicant’s attorney, that this area of Wilton “does not offer much precedent-worthy design.” Commissioner Johnson pointed to the Lambert House and surrounding Lambert Corner, as the main architectural reference point for the area.

Fuller noted that the blocks that surround 141 Danbury Rd. include designs both traditional and modernist, as well as a high tension wire switchyard and a lumber yard, defending Feinberg’s comment that the area did not offer a consistent architectural standard.

Following a brief presentation by Kate Throckmorton on landscaping that yielded no questions from the Commission, engineer Craig Yannes presented the findings of the peer review of the traffic study previously submitted by the applicant, noting that it met standards and no major issues were found.

Commissioner Johnson expressed concern about existing levels of traffic along Danbury Rd. during morning and evening rush hours, and was assured by Yannes that the study incorporated pre-pandemic data about traffic patterns into its findings.

The final topic of discussion before opening the hearing to comments from the public concerned the specific language and intention of the text amendment. Commissioner Melissa-Jean Rotini requested more clarity about the intention of the DE-5R zoning district and whether it would be limited to multifamily units or not.

Raymond Mazzeo, a land-use consultant for the applicant, addressed concerns raised in the Sept. 22 hearing about whether the DE-5R standard could be applied to sites rezoned in the future. He noted that the applicant has chosen to leave the submission more broad, allowing for the Commission itself to have discretion over future applications seeking this zoning overlay.

The reactions expressed during the public comment period were mixed. Two residents, Sara Curtis and Nancy Weise, expressed concern about the public process for the project. Curtis questioned whether the public had been appropriately noticed and engaged about a project of this size, and Weise challenged the commissioners on the lack of questions asked during the developer’s presentation.

Later in the evening, Tomasetti addressed Weise’s criticism directly, saying, “It’s a mischaracterization to say this board isn’t asking questions.” He noted that this hearing is occurring far along in the review process and that many of the Commission’s prior questions were answered in writing by the applicant.

Sean Cahill, a neighboring resident, and Phyllis Zappala, representing the Board of Lambert Common, both expressed support for the project.

“The developer was responsive to our comments,” Zappala said. “They seem to want to be a good neighbor.”

In a preview of the discussion to follow, Feinberg then delivered her closing remarks, noting that the goals of the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) are in some ways in conflict with one another, specifically the push for greater density and more diversified housing alongside the emphasis on preservation of natural resources and amenities like the Norwalk River.

Big Picture

The meeting concluded with a lively discussion between the commissioners about the number of new apartment complexes currently under review. On the heels of Town Planner Michael Wrinn’s update that the Wilton Center Master Plan contracts have been signed and the process will begin shortly, Commissioner Doris Knapp questioned why so many large-scale projects are moving ahead at this time.

“Does anyone else share my concern about the huge amount of dwelling units coming into town?” she asked, estimating that roughly 650 units are currently proposed.

Tomasetti noted that Darien has added 860 units over the last 20 years, far outpacing Wilton’s growth. Vice-chair Rotini interjected, “But that goes to Doris’ point, what she’s saying is it’s not a natural growth progression.”

Tomasetti reiterated that the Commission is not in charge of what applications it receives or how many. “There was a period of time when we had nothing to do. If we’re going to be stewards of this community, we need to review every application based on its merits.”

He concluded the meeting with a stark reminder, “We are behind the 8-ball on this, because prior Commissions didn’t do what they should have done. For 40 years, all they said was ‘no.’”

The Commission will reconvene on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. The hearings for 141 Danbury Rd. will remain open awaiting a vote by the Inland Wetlands Commission expected later this week.