Election2019 Candidate OP-ED: Florence Johnson, Planning & Zoning Commission
21st Century Planning and Zoning Practices
Most of Wilton’s zoning regulations were written in the 20th century–before modern mixed-use development, conservation, and sustainability changed how municipalities plan and manage zoning. In recent years many nearby towns have proactively updated their zoning regulations to align with their Plans of Conservation and Development (POCD) and community Master Plans informed by current best practices in planning and zoning. Wilton now has a new POCD and will shortly begin the Master Plan process. I am committed to seeing that process bring necessary, balanced progress that enhances value for all our properties, grows the grand list, adds vibrancy to our downtown, and most importantly maintains Wilton’s special character.
Today, market trends show that more people want to live and work in their town’s revitalized commercial centers and they are demanding a greater variety of housing options. Successful area zoning revisions have embraced mixed use, smart growth re-development zones. These modern zoning codes require developers to demonstrate project alignment with community plans that include provisions for a variety of housing options and price points, public spaces, and enhanced connectivity — such as sidewalks — to improve walkability and access to transportation, jobs, shopping, entertainment, recreation, and services.
Many of our neighboring towns have village centers that demonstrate the best results of forward-thinking planning: active people engaged in community life–including families, millennials, singles, couples, empty nesters, seniors, workers, and visitors from near and far. Smart growth, re-development zoning updates can be used to facilitate implementation of our town plan in ways that enhance the experience of living in Wilton and support goals for growing our grand list. Look closely at many nearby towns and you’ll find mixed use micro neighborhoods, with smaller housing units adjacent to business and professional storefronts close to shopping, work, professional services, cultural activities, entertainment, recreation, and transportation.
Like our neighbors, it is time for Wilton to employ modern zoning practices that allow business zones to be re-purposed for mixed use with provisions for historical preservation, shared community amenities, a variety of housing choices, and community-endorsed architectural standards. To make Wilton a premier housing choice for singles, young adults, couples, empty nesters, seniors, and families, let’s prioritize a review of our zoning regulations to insure alignment with Wilton’s community plan and attract re-investment in our commercial zones through smart growth mixed use zoning practices.
Town zoning practices can and should encourage re-investment in outdated, depreciating commercial properties. With a limited amount of undeveloped land, Wilton’s greatest opportunity lies in re-zoning underperforming commercial zones to align with current best planning and zoning practices and our town plan. All Wiltonians will benefit from environmentally friendly, person-centered improvements like access to conservation lands, common spaces, and walkability. Updated zoning can streamline application processes and serve as a sign that investment in re-developing properties falling behind market rates values is less risky.
Other communities have seen changes in zoning practices improve outcomes–including thriving local businesses, attractive workplace options for companies in the service economy, a variety of lifestyle housing and workspace choices for today’s highly mobile workforce, and improved demand for single family homes in protected neighborhoods zoned for lower density. Many municipalities have included zoning incentives for a specific number of 1 and 2 bedroom multi-unit owned or rented apartments in re-development plans to provide more diverse housing within a range of price points in a suburban mixed used zones. A number of nearby towns require zoning applicants seeking special permits and/or regulatory changes to demonstrate how significant aspects of the project, including any proposed relaxation or alteration of the zoning regulation(s), align with the town’s long term plan and POCD.
Wilton must be a regional leader in 21st century measures of quality of life and in indicators of a vibrant, healthy, and economically sound community. Past piecemeal approaches to changes in zoning regulations have resulted in inconsistencies and/or contradictions that hinder investment in our downtown. Comprehensive regulations combined with modern, streamlined application processes can attract re-investment in under-performing commercial properties and help Wilton upgrade village infrastructure without burdening taxpayers. These measures can help us preserve town character and enhance economic vitality. They can create incentives to invest in properties lagging the market and improve housing choices. Evidence-based examples will help us prioritize updates to make Wilton zoning practices more relevant in today’s market to attract investors, future businesses, and new residents and provide more diverse housing options for existing residents as lifestyles change.
It’s time to update zoning regulations to align with Wilton’s new POCD and long range plan. We must honor our community’s 2029 vision while respecting and embracing our unique history and character. Let’s work together to bring zoning regulations into the 21st century and make our shared vision for Wilton’s vibrant future a reality.