Wilton’s Planning & Zoning Commission (P&Z) held a lengthy meeting last night, Sept. 22, which included a public hearing on a developer’s latest plans for a 173-unit apartment complex on a 4.2-acre site at 141 Danbury Road, the former site of the Melissa and Doug corporate office.
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. At that point, it was clear the developer would have to resolve several issues before the project had a chance of gaining approval.
While the latest plans have evolved in significant ways since June, numerous issues still remain, though momentum seems to be building behind the applicant.
The application materials, including detailed architectural and landscaping plans, can be seen on the town website.
Key Changes to the Plans
Largely in response to the earlier feedback from P&Z and the ARB, the applicant’s team highlighted several key changes to the developer’s plans, including, among others:
- Design changes to the building’s entry
- Modified color and material selections (including the choice of a more traditional red brick)
- A more distinctive roofline/parapet
- A greater opening of the building’s courtyard, with more visibility and connectivity to the river-front open space at the rear of the property
- Perhaps the most impactful change, the lofted areas on the top floor were set back ten feet from the facade, making them less visible from street level and creating a less imposing impression to passers-by
Wilton’s current zoning regulations pose a fundamental barrier for any project like the one proposed, which does not conform to Wilton’s requirements for density, setbacks, building height and other factors.
The property at 141 Danbury Rd. is currently zoned as a Design Enterprise District (DE-5). To circumvent the area and bulk limitations of the DE-5 zone, the applicant proposed a text amendment, or “overlay,” to the existing zoning regulations, to be known as DE-5R, or Design Enterprise Residential District (Overlay).
The overlay would have to be adopted by P&Z before the applicant could receive the necessary special permit for the purpose of multi-family housing.
Commission chair Rick Tomasetti observed the potential pitfall of adopting the proposed changes to the zoning regulations. “We all understand there’s potentially some unintended consequences any time you have a regulation [change],” he said.
Commission vice-chair Melissa-Jean Rotini echoed Tomasetti’s point. “To some extent when we draft regulations we never really know what it might affect. We try the best we can to make sure we see all aspects, but there’s always something.”
While the need to amend the zoning regulations is paramount for the applicant, the applicant’s team is also working through a litany of nitty-gritty details, with questions from town officials on everything from walking path borders to window mullions.
Attempts to resolve outstanding questions and issues were in process right up until the latest meeting. Just the day before, on Tues., Sept. 21, the applicant’s legal team submitted written responses to clarify the applicant’s position on key issues and address questions from town department staff on several details of the plans.
During the meeting, Tomasetti asked Wrinn about those issues. Wrinn reported, “We’re working through a few things, but [the applicant team] answered the majority of those questions correctly and we should be able to move forward” with resolving the issues satisfactorily.
… And What About Traffic?
One of those key issues pertained to traffic, a concern often raised by residents about multi-family developments.
In July, the applicant submitted the analysis of a traffic study which concluded, “the proposed development traffic will not have a significant impact to traffic operations on Danbury Road.”
The analysis was based on pre-pandemic assumptions about traffic patterns, using historical traffic volume numbers adjusted at a normally-expected growth rate, rather than recent levels which have been atypically lower during the COVID-19 pandemic. The analysis compared the traffic for the proposed apartments to what would be expected at a 40,000-sq.ft. office building, a size comparable to the one currently located at the property.
At least one commissioner, Jill Warren, expressed skepticism during the meeting about the traffic study’s conclusions given the number of tenants that would be at the building. “It doesn’t seem to add up to me,” Warren said.
Warren may not be the only one seeking validation of the analysis. Town Planner Michael Wrinn requested a peer-review of the traffic study — essentially a second opinion by an independent traffic engineer chosen by the Town of Wilton. Wrinn indicated the results would be available “in a couple of weeks.”
In the Sept. 21 memo to P&Z, the applicant explained that the state would also be examining the potential traffic impact (though that generally does not occur before local zoning approval is given) but preliminary feedback suggested the state would not object to the expected traffic volume.
“An Administration Decision (AD) application has also been made to the Office of State Traffic Administration (OSTA), due to the size of the project and location on a state highway. The OSTA submission was made concurrent with the Town submissions on July 19th, the earliest an OSTA application can be filed per OSTA regulations. While OSTA does not typically conclude its formal review until after local zoning approval is obtained, the Applicant has been advised by OSTA that the CTDOT Bureau of Policy and Planning has approved the traffic volumes provided in the application and that, after a preliminary review of the application by OSTA and the CTDOT Division of Traffic, the proposed driveway layout appears to be sufficient,” according to the applicant’s legal team.
As part of the public hearing, several letters have been submitted to P&Z. Many, though not all, have been in support of the application. (All of the letters can be viewed on the town website.)
One detractor, a Nod Hill Rd. resident, objected to the proposed architecture of what he considered to be a “massive” apartment complex.
“This kind of ugly and cheap ‘five over one stick construction’ will be a long-term eyesore and detriment to our town. Wilton’s long-term viability lies in its bucolic and quaint New England charm. Ask yourselves this simple question – would this building look appropriate next to Weir Farm or the Historical Society? I am not opposed to apartment buildings by any means, but the fact is that we can build ones that are not so massive and more architecturally pleasing,” he wrote.
In contrast, some neighboring businesses wrote in support of the application, including Ring’s End, located at neighboring 149 and 129 Danbury Rd.
An executive of the company wrote, “The proposed building will be a welcome addition to our neighborhood, and will help the town meet the growing demand for living opportunities here in Wilton. As next-door neighbors to the subject property, we appreciate the significant investment being made in both the proposed building and the significant landscaping along the Norwalk River. We hope the commission will take advantage of this tremendous opportunity for the Wilton community.”
Another business, FGI Wilton, LLC, located at 131 Danbury Rd, offered “conditional support” on the presumption that its property and daily operations would not be negatively impacted by interruptions to utilities, rainwater run-off or other potential issues as a result of the new development.
While several letters were received, only one member of the public opted to speak during the P&Z meeting. Barbara Geddis, a resident who also identified herself as an architect, is opposed to the project, calling it “aggressive and frankly unsuitable for this not-very-large site.”
Geddis said, “I’m not afraid of density, I’m not afraid of height,” but challenged the commission on what she considered a “monumental decision” to “craft a new zone with new ground rules” and not consistent with the goal of form-based zoning.
“Why would the tallest building in Wilton be here, of all places?” she asked. “Isn’t it your role to promote orderly and harmonious land use that mirrors and extends the assets of our community?”
Geddis continued, “We’re kind of letting this project do our master planning for us. Is this the precedent you have been seeking?”
Rotini encouraged the public to remain engaged as the project moves through the approval process with the town. “We did a fair amount of pre-hearings on this [pre-application] but I still want to make sure that the public is aware that this is still a process ongoing. If there are any comments, they should definitely bring them to light. Feel free to speak,” Rotini said.
The public hearing will remain open until the application is on the P&Z agenda again. That is expected at the Oct. 25 P&Z meeting.
Love It or Hate It?
Like it or not, developers’ interest in multi-family developments, like the one at 141 Danbury Road, is at a new high. GOOD Morning Wilton is keeping readers updated on the latest proposals and reviews by town boards and commissions.
Look for P&Z’s next pre-application review of plans for 2/24 Pimpewaug Road on Sept. 27. It will be the third time the applicant has come before the commission for an informal discussion on its plans before submitting a formal application.
The Architectural Review Board (Village District Design Advisory Committee) will be meeting on Sept. 30 to conduct a pre-application review for a proposal at 3 Hubbard Rd. in Wilton Center.