Accessibility: Should Wilton P&Z Insist on Higher Standards Than Building Code Requires?

A pre-application review for a new apartment building at 3 Hubbard Rd. has raised questions about accessibility for people with mobility disabilities, young families

At its Aug. 16 meeting, Wilton’s Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission conducted an informal, pre-application review of potential plans for a new apartment building at 3 Hubbard Rd. The plans call for a second building to be constructed at the IVE at Wilton Center apartment complex.

Compared to the preliminary plans the applicant presented to P&Z on two earlier occasions, the commission was quite pleased with the overall direction of the site plan. However, the latest plans elicited some objections from certain members of the commission — and subsequently by some residents — about what they perceive as lack of accessibility for people with limited mobility.

During the meeting, commissioner Doris Knapp questioned whether the proposed 3-4 story building would have an elevator.

David Goslin, the project’s architect, responded, “At this point, we do not have any elevators designed into the building, nor are we required by code to put elevators in the building.”

Without a code requirement, Goslin said, an elevator becomes “more or less a marketing and convenience thing.”

Knapp personally took great issue with that.

“As a handicapped person, I would not be able to get into the building and up to the second or third floor without an elevator. And I’m sure there are other people in my predicament who would find it difficult. So you’re taking away a lot of mobility for people, either living in or visiting the building, by not having an elevator,” she admonished the team.

She also noted that people without a chronic disability could experience a temporary one, with any number of common injuries. For that reason, Knapp said, “To me, it’s just not a wise move to not have an elevator,”

Goslin conceded that the upper floors would not be handicapped-accessible, but emphasized that building code requirements do not require them to be.

“This building is designed according to code,” he said. “Our first floor is fully accessible. We have a total of 24 units. Over the 20-unit threshold, we are required to have 10% of our units be ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act] compliant.”

As designed, the three units on the first floor would fulfill that requirement.

Commissioner Jill Warren took Knapp’s concerns a step further.

“I really concur with Doris [Knapp],” she said. “I think it would be a little foolish not to put in elevators, not only because of people who are disabled or handicapped, but also because you have two- and three-bedroom units on the second and third floors. Young families would not be able to get a stroller up two flights of stairs.”

Proposed Sidewalks Pose A Challenge, Too

Knapp’s concern didn’t stop with the elevator. She also viewed the proposed sidewalks — which include some stairs — as problematic for people with disabilities.

The sidewalks were added to the original site plan at the urging of P&Z to improve pedestrian connectivity from the site into Wilton Center. They would lead directly from the upper parking area of the IVE apartment complex, past the entrance to CNSW, and down to Hubbard Rd below.

The applicant team said the sidewalks would also directly benefit the neighboring Children’s Nursery School of Wilton (CNSW) by connecting to their entry and giving them improved access to Hubbard Rd. (as well as the planned “pollinator pathway” along the walkway).

Warren viewed the sidewalk design as inherently flawed. “I find it a little bit amusing that you are putting in a sidewalk, connecting to a nursery school, that cannot accommodate strollers.”

According to the applicant, stairs are necessary in some sections of the sidewalk due to the steep slope and narrow width of the property between the existing buildings.

The slideshow below shows various views of the challenging terrain where the proposed sidewalk/stairs would be. The view from the IVE upper parking lot (where the sidewalk would begin) looking over the rooftop of CNSW offers some perspective on how steep the hillside is.

Undeterred, Knapp persisted in challenging the team on why they couldn’t create ADA-friendly pathways. Kevney Moses of Workforce Partners, which owns the IVE property, told Knapp the team had carefully studied the sidewalk design with that concern in mind.

“It’s just not feasible,” Moses explained. “If we had more room, it’s something we could certainly incorporate, but we are up against a precipitous grade change over a short distance. It has made creating an ADA-compliant access just not feasible in that area, unfortunately.”

When Christopher Smith, the land use attorney on the applicant’s team, chimed in to assure Knapp the team had earnestly tried to find a solution to make the pedestrian access more ADA-friendly, Knapp interjected, “Well, try harder.”

Moses made one more effort to assuage Knapp’s concern, and to set the record straight on the project’s ADA compliance.

He said, “People could exit what is an ADA-compliant building and proceed down through the parking area to get to the sidewalk on Old Ridgefield Rd. and then down to the sidewalk in front of Hubbard.”

While Moses admitted that route would be “circuitous,” he concluded, “We’ve done the best that we can within the site limitations.”

Wilton Residents Respond

Response to the P&Z meeting from some Wilton residents was swift.

Madeleine “M.J.” Wilken was so dismayed after viewing the P&Z meeting she penned a letter to the editor at GMW (she says she also sent a letter to the commission) to express her concern that “people with mobility disabilities are being treated as second-class citizens.”

Wilken would like to see the commission insist on more than “the bare legal minimum” from the applicant.

Numerous other residents took to social media to voice their surprise or displeasure with the plans for the building. Alison Jacobson, whose husband suffers from MS, sought to raise awareness about the Hubbard Rd. project on the Wilton 411 Facebook group.

She wrote, “Unless someone you love is disabled, these situations don’t usually register. But as the wife of someone who uses a powerchair, I became abundantly aware how many places are inaccessible. We’ve had to stop visiting friends’ homes, certain restaurants and even retail stores. This might not impact you now but it certainly can in the future.”

Jacobson told GMW, “This points to a larger issue… What concerns me about P&Z is there is a greater concern with aesthetics than access.”

As Jacobson considers the long-term housing needs for her family, which also includes her daughter and elderly mother, she said, “I’m looking at what towns really care about my family, and based on what I’m hearing, it’s not Wilton, which is sad because I’ve been here for 18 years.”

While the 3 Hubbard Rd. applicant touted the proposed building as an excellent example of transit-oriented development (TOD), Jacobson felt the proximity to the train station was even more reason to make the proposed building more ADA-accessible.

“Access to a train is vital to someone in a wheelchair,” she said. “We need a town where [my husband] can go out and about, and get around, and get access to public transportation. It’s critical.”

“Wilton is wonderful about being open-minded, but I do feel like disability is one of the last bastions of bias,” Jacobson added.

She said she wants to see more P&Z members sensitive to the concerns of the disabled.

“[I want to see] more of an acknowledgement and awareness by everyone on P&Z to look at these issues, and certainly not consider it a ‘marketing and convenience thing’ for accessibility… I would expect not just the bare minimum of ADA compliance. I really think we need to look at what is needed by people in our community to live here and thrive.”

Are P&Z’s Hands Tied?

GMW reached out to Wilton’s Director of Land Use and Town Planner Michael Wrinn for additional insight. (P&Z Commission Chair Rick Tomasetti was on vacation at the time of our request.)

“Do they have to [put in an elevator] to meet building code? No,” Wrinn said matter-of-factly.

But he quickly added that he expects the applicant team will give Knapp’s and Warren’s comments very serious consideration.

“The commission is very good about pushing applicants as far as they can and saying, this would make a nicer project… Doris [Knapp] was pretty clear and forceful that she thought they should put in an elevator. [The applicant] heard that,” Wrinn said, predicting, “So they’re going to look at it, assess it, see if it makes sense.”

He further expects that cost will be a key consideration. Wrinn acknowledged that adding features or amenities would increase the cost of the building and translate to higher rents — and that isn’t necessarily desirable for achieving Wilton’s housing goals.

“We’re trying to get a wide range of housing types and costs,” Wrinn said. “This [project] creates a different price point by having… a brand new apartment building, but without those amenities, so you’re going to have a lower rental rate. It gives someone a choice.”

Wrinn contrasted the 3 Hubbard Rd. project with 141 Danbury Rd., an amenity-filled apartment complex with over 170 units — and elevators — being proposed at the former Melissa and Doug office site.

“[3 Hubbard Rd.] is a different type of housing unit,” Wrinn said. With just 24 units, “The footprint on this is relatively small.”

Wrinn also offered a reminder that the Building Department is a separate function from P&Z. Just as a fire marshall would look at a project independently from P&Z, so would a building department, Wrinn explained.

In fact, the building code comes from the state and even national level; Wrinn said there is no Town of Wilton building code per se. Building code appeals would go to the state.

Since the proposed apartments at 3 Hubbard Rd. would meet building code requirements, Wrinn said P&Z would have to have “a substantial reason why” it might reject the application.

But commissioners do have the discretion to vote against an application for any reason.

“They can vote no because of any number of reasons,” Wrinn said. “They may not like the architecture [for example] or they don’t feel it’s correct for Wilton Center. They may not like the parking or traffic or [other reasons].”

Wrinn said P&Z’s vote to accept or reject any application rarely comes down to a single issue, such as the elevator. “[There are] a lot of pieces to the puzzle,” he said. “I don’t think the elevator is going to be the only issue we have when this project comes in as a [final] application.”

Wrinn was likely referring to the fact that the applicant will seek relief with a text amendment on certain zoning regulations that apply in the Wilton Center zone. P&Z may yield concessions on the proposed building setbacks, height and site coverage.

1 COMMENT

  1. Re: The non-elevator apartment Bldg.
    Bottom line… no elevator no permit!
    While the builder had made improvements to the plan, the elimination of an elevator and comments reported, indicates the desire to build only to code. Is this the ONLY standard that is expected in Wiltion… in CT? Have I retired to Texas thinking I’m in CT?
    Sounds to me that some are using 1920 standards for a 2021 project.
    I commend those on P&Z who expect livable standards for all people not just DINKs!

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