The Greater Wilton Center Master Plan Subcommittee convened on Wednesday, Oct. 26, kicking off the final stage of the process to retool the area’s zoning regulations. Notably, this was the first meeting between the subcommittee and BFJ Planning, the consultants hired to conduct the process, since June 1 — nearly five months prior. In August, during a planned summer recess, the subcommittee members called a special session amongst themselves to dive in on the work completed so far and underscore for BFJ the elements that needed further attention.
At that August meeting, the subcommittee members agreed that enough time had been spent recapping data and findings about the challenges facing Wilton Center (issues, including lack of pedestrian traffic, an excess of parking, and the absence of a naturally occurring central gathering space, that had been identified originally in the Plan of Conservation and Development process four years prior but have now been backed up by data and analysis by BFJ). Instead, the group seemed eager to move on and begin hammering out the details of Wilton Center’s new form-based zoning regulations and a zoning overlay for the portions of Route 7/Danbury Rd. included in the study area.
These two topics formed the bulk of Wednesday’s discussion and the detailed presentation led by Jonathan Martin of BFJ Planning.
A Hybrid Form-Based Zoning Approach for Wilton Center Proper
During the June meeting, the subcommittee expressed a preference for BFJ to develop a new, hybrid form-based zoning code for Wilton Center. A form-based code, as opposed to a more conventional zoning model like the one currently in place, focuses on the physical shape of new developments and their relationship to the public realm. This model tends to encourage mixed uses (where residential and commercial spaces are co-located together), pedestrian connectivity, and the cultivation of a sense of place. The alternate strategy would have been for BFJ to simply update Wilton Center’s existing, more traditional zoning code.
This change meant an extension to the master planning process, but one that would hopefully result in a better, more lasting outcome. Where the current zoning has resulted in an area that is almost exclusively commercial, the new structure would encourage what the presentation called, “a true mixed-use center,” with retail and restaurants at ground level, greater opportunities for residential uses, and improved walkability.
At Wednesday’s meeting, BFJ Planning proposed a new code that would divide Wilton Center proper into three areas, each with distinct but connected land use goals:
- Along Old Ridgefield Rd. and River Rd., the code would encourage active uses at the street level, with retail, restaurants, and public spaces along the sidewalk and offices and apartments at the second floor and above.
- Along Hubbard Rd. and Godfrey Pl., the code would promote multi-family and townhouse residential uses and wider sidewalks to encourage walkability.
- Along the Norwalk River, the code would serve a dual purpose of setting the stage for an eventual riverwalk and greater pedestrian access, while also protecting the riparian environment.
The proposal allows for residential development to a height of four stories, with an additional fifth story, which would be set back from the street, available as a bonus. Various design elements could be incentivized by the town, such as the creation of public space, affordable housing, and public realm improvements.
The subcommittee discussed the proposal, adding several items of comment, which BFJ Planning will take into consideration for the next iteration of the plan. Many comments pertained to the relationship between the river and its floodplain and potential development. Subcommittee Member Barbara Geddis proposed establishing a maximum height as well as a maximum number of stories in the area, given that floor height can vary dramatically between buildings.
Subcommittee Chair Rick Tomasetti (also Chair of the Planning & Zoning Commission), reminded the subcommittee and all those listening that no fairy would be coming down and waving a magic wand to effect these changes overnight. “This is a framework,” he said. “This happens over time. Good plans foster change over time.”
A Conventional, Euclidean Zoning Overlay for Danbury Rd.
Turning toward the Route 7/Danbury Rd. corridor, BFJ Planning proposed a zoning overlay, rather than a change to underlying zoning in the area. An overlay keeps existing zoning in place but creates a new layer of land uses, design rules, and development opportunities that property owners can choose to opt into. Typically, this new layer offers greater flexibility or increased height or bulk on a given site, in exchange for following updated design guidelines or incorporating certain community benefits.
BFJ’s presentation outlines a proposed division within the Route 7 portion of the master plan study area, with distinct zoning objectives for each section:
- Property owners north of Ridgefield Rd. up to Pimpewaug Rd. would be offered a Residential Corridor Overlay, which would promote new multi-family development up to three stories, with a potential fourth-floor bonus, and increase allowed lot coverage by 30 percent. Some of the design goals the town could seek to incentivize with this overlay include the creation of affordable housing, better connectivity with Wilton Center and the train station, and green building standards. The presentation noted that this overlay would also seek to “protect existing residential uses,” which include single-family homes.
- South of Ridgefield Rd. to Wolfpit Rd., property owners would be offered a Commercial Highway Corridor Overlay, which would promote highway-oriented retail and restaurant businesses, with multi-family development allowed by special permit. Like the northern overlay, BFJ proposes allowing development up to three stories, with a potential fourth-floor bonus, and increasing allowed lot coverage by 30 percent. Here, the town could incentivize both walkability and better vehicular connections between sites, as well as green building standards and the preservation or adaptive reuse of existing historic structures.
In both areas, any property owners who choose not to opt in will be able to continue operating under the existing zoning, which would remain in place.
As with the Wilton Center form-based proposal, the subcommittee members gave BFJ Planning extensive feedback, which will be incorporated ahead of the next meeting. Tomasetti and others objected to an idea floated by Martin that the southern commercial overlay could create opportunities for big box retail along Danbury Rd.
“I just don’t see big box here,” Tomasetti said. “It has a place, and it could even have a place in Wilton, but not in Wilton Center.”
He also called for more nuance in what kinds of development could be allowed on certain sites within the overlay area. As an example, he pointed to the Wilton Historical Society’s property at 224 Danbury Rd., where he said a small-scale townhouse village next door might be reasonable, but a four-story apartment complex with street-level retail would not.
The next meeting of the Greater Wilton Center Master Plan Subcommittee is scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 16, during which BFJ will incorporate feedback from this discussion and return with further specifics on both the hybrid form-based code and the zoning overlay.
One major deliverable added to BFJ’s to-do list for the next meeting is a 3-D diagram showing the potential build-out of Wilton Center under the new hybrid form-based zoning, an idea first suggested by Geddis at prior meetings. Martin agreed to explore options for such a rendering.
As the Greater Wilton Center Master Plan process heads into its final chapters, the Amenities Master Plan process is just beginning. On Tuesday, Nov. 1, the amenities subcommittee will meet for the first time to kick off this next planning process. Future master plans for Cannondale and Georgetown are also expected to be explored sometime next year.
Editor’s Note: The article has been updated to correct the date of the amenities master plan subcommittee meeting. It is on Tuesday, Nov. 1, not Wednesday, Nov. 2.