With reluctance and vocal frustration, the Planning & Zoning Commission voted on Monday, June 26 to approve a five-story, 42-unit residential building at 12 Godfrey Place. Known as Wilton Center Lofts, the project made use of Connecticut’s 8-30g affordable housing statute, which empowers developers to effectively sidestep local zoning when building projects that include affordable units in towns where less than 10% of residential units are considered “affordable.” Wilton Center Lofts, as passed on Monday evening, will offer 13 units of affordable housing.
The approval, which passed 5-1 with one abstention and several Commissioners holding their noses, included a series of 21 conditions inserted to try to mitigate some of the Commission’s most serious critiques of the project. These conditions seek to address concerns about e-bike/lithium-ion battery safety, loading and unloading of delivery trucks, construction hours, and more.
By approving the project with this resolution, the Commission was able to maintain a certain degree of control over the project and enforce these changes. Had the Commission voted to reject the project altogether, not only would litigation likely have followed, but the ultimate plan for the site may not have incorporated these changes.
Commissioner Chris Pagliaro called the process “legal blackmail.” Ahead of the official vote, he stated, “If I vote in favor, I do not want Wiltonians to think I’m in favor of this. I just don’t think we have the proper tools to deny this based on what we’ve been told by Town Counsel.”
Earlier in the evening, Town Planner Michael Wrinn reminded the Commission that in order to draft a resolution denying the project, the group would need to argue that it poses “a substantial health and safety risk that negates the need for affordable housing.”
Offering a summary of the dilemma the Commission faced, Commissioner Ken Hoffman said, “The reasons we’ve come up with to deny this architectural wart on the town are not going to stand up to deny an 8-30g.” He noted that after litigation the town could end up “…back where we are, after spending more money.”
The project’s tumultuous history began in April 2022, when an earlier version of the project (which did not make use of 8-30g) was first submitted to P&Z for a pre-application review. These discussions allow applicants to present preliminary plans and receive initial feedback from the commissioners; however, the comments are non-binding.
On Monday, Chair Rick Tomasetti seemed to criticize the project’s pre-application submission as arriving “fully baked, with a preconceived notion of ‘this is what I want to do.’” He would add, “I didn’t think it was a good application from the onset.”
However, Tomasetti was not present for that initial April 2022 review, when the feedback — non-binding as it may have been — was largely positive. Commissioners praised the then-four-story, 32-unit building’s architecture and expressed no major concerns about the height or bulk of the project. Minutes of the meeting state only that, “The Commission indicated a preference for some public component on street level that could encourage community interaction/connectivity.” GMW coverage at the time also noted that the need to activate a more vibrant street life was the primary takeaway from the Commission’s initial review.
By the time a formal proposal was under consideration in November, the discussion expanded to include questions about the project’s density and architecture, but feedback from the Commission continued to focus primarily on the building’s relationship to the street, with developer and architect Rich Granoff eventually agreeing to incorporate public elements like a bocce court and pocket park. However, concern remained that the project might not fully conform with the zoning changes imminently being made as a result of the master plan process.
In January, at the request of the Commission, the applicant submitted a line-by-line comparison of the proposed building’s compliance with the latest draft regulations prepared by the master plan subcommittee and consultants. At least in the applicant’s telling, the project broadly conformed with the future zoning changes being envisioned. Compromise seemed within reach.
But by the Monday, Feb. 13 meeting, a deeper issue came to the fore. Although the Commission had expressed hesitation throughout the process about pursuing a regulatory change in Wilton Center during the same period in which the area’s master plan process was underway, questions emerged about the sweeping nature of the zoning change being requested.
The original 12 Godfrey application would have rewritten Wilton’s zoning regulations to allow larger, taller buildings (up to 56 units per acre, on any parcels greater than half an acre) across all of Wilton Center and any other areas of town within a half mile of a train station. It would also reduce the number of parking spaces new developments need to provide for residents and visitors. But ultimately, it appeared poised to undermine the effectiveness of Wilton’s master plan-inspired regulatory changes to incentivize public benefits and design amenities.
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Throughout the rising tension, Granoff maintained a quiet threat that if the process dragged on too long, an alternative design making use of 8-30g was on the table:
“We’ve done a study to do an 8-30g here. It’s basically this exact same building with one floor added to it. We actually think it looks good and meets with the five-story aspect of the proposed Master Plan,” he said, during the Monday, Jan. 9 meeting of the Commission, adding, “Economically, it is neutral to the development team to add a story and go 8-30g.”
In February, the Commission seemed to call that bluff, drafting a resolution to reject the project, at which point Granoff withdrew the initial application. What was then submitted is the project that has now been reluctantly approved — a five-story, 42-unit building that includes 13 affordable units, stripped of some of its more expensive design features like exterior stonework.
So what’s next for the Greater Wilton Center Area Master Plan? The ambitious project has been underway since December 2021, an effort to revive and modernize Wilton’s aging downtown zoning regulations. In April, the P&Z subcommittee in charge of shepherding the plan began meeting on a weekly basis in an effort to wrap up the project, which was originally slated to conclude in October 2022. The delay is due in part to the creation of a more sophisticated form-based zoning code for the area, which will offer more flexibility and opportunities for nimble design.
Tomasetti and Wrinn pointed out that the current Wilton Center zoning regulations restrict residential development within the downtown area.
Pagliaro spoke to the importance of the master plan process, saying in part, “We’re behind in the conversation. We developed a village that has no diversity of housing. Previous regimes basically tried to create zoning to prohibit living in the village, which goes against everything since the caveman — every village in the world was developed by people in town. This is part of why we’re doing the master plan right now.”
The next meeting of the Master Plan Subcommittee will be held on Thursday, June 29.
Note: Monday’s P&Z meeting also included a historic vote to approve Wilton’s first-ever hotel at the iPark site on the border with Norwalk. Coverage of this milestone vote and several other agenda items from the June 26 meeting will be published later this week.