The Tuesday, Sept. 27 meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) opened on a positive note, with two unanimous ‘yes’ votes and a pre-application review of a new multi-family development that several Commissioners referred to as ‘great.’ However, the mood took a considerable turn when the representatives of Hartford Healthcare Corporation appeared before the Commission for a third time, bearing a signage proposal largely unchanged since August and a new threat to ‘go legal’ on the Commission if approval were not granted.

Two (or in this Case, Seven) Thumbs up for White Fences’ Residential Conversion

The first of two topics that seemed to generate little controversy was the adaptive reuse of two office buildings at 523 and 529 Danbury Rd. to create nine residential units, which received a unanimous vote of approval. This project was first presented to the Architectural Review Board in July and reviewed by P&Z in September, and involves the conversion of the former Girl Scouts of America building and an adjacent 1820s federal-style structure that has long been used as office space.

The plan bears some resemblance to the 254 Danbury Rd. proposal that would be introduced later in the evening. Both propose, in part, to convert historic structures along Route 7 into multifamily housing, with minimal changes to the original architecture. In both projects, the teams behind them underscored design elements meant to make the new units feel more private and gracious than a standard apartment complex, such as formal front doors leading outside.

Another Year of Wait & See before Bringing the Cannabis Industry to Wilton

The Commission then moved on to a public hearing and discussion about extending the moratorium on cannabis establishments operating in Wilton. Town Planner Michael Wrinn opened the topic by recapping the prior discussions.

“Just about a year ago, the Commission elected to basically create a prohibition for those cannabis establishments,” he explained. “The hope was by spring or summer, we would have a much clearer idea of the impact of these businesses in the state, but to date, they’ve been slow to give licenses. So we just don’t have a lot of data to go by.”

Wrinn also advised the Commission that voting to approve an extension of the moratorium for another year does not limit the Commission from revisiting the topic sooner, should data about traffic impacts and regulatory options become more clear.

Chair Rick Tomasetti then opened a public hearing on the topic, but no speakers from the public came forward, nor had any written comments been received in advance of the meeting. Therefore, the hearing was closed, and the Commission proceeded to a vote, unanimously approving a resolution to extend the moratorium for another year.

A Warm Reception for Multi-Family Housing at the Former Baptist Church

The only new project presented this week was a proposal for an adaptive reuse and development plan for 254 Danbury Rd., the site of the former Baptist Church. The property is now owned by architect William D. Earls, who is also a local scholar of historic architecture and trustee of the Wilton Historical Society.

The pre-application documents submitted on his behalf by Stamford law firm Wofsey Rosen Kweskin & Kuriansky describe a 10-unit residential project that would preserve the architectural and historic aspects of the site. The 1850s gothic revival church would be converted into four residential units, and three additional buildings would be constructed with the same look and feel as the original structure. Each of these new buildings would house two residential units for a total of 10 apartments altogether.

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In his discussions with P&Z, Earls described the apartments as 3-4 bedroom units of around 2,400 square feet each. Like the White Fences project, every unit will offer residents a private entrance from the exterior. Privacy seemed to be a theme of the project, with Earls later saying to the Commission, “It’s not a place for congregation in general. This is not that kind of place.”

Commissioner Florence Johnson questioned whether a public space, such as a playground or barbecue area would be appropriate given that the complex is made up of 3 and 4-bedroom units and might house families.

“They can go to each other’s terraces but I don’t see a communal playground, basketball courts, a pool — none of that sort of thing,” Earls replied. “It’s… a little more discreet.” He described private bluestone terraces for each unit and a desire for a ‘house-like,’ not ‘apartment-like,’ feel.

Overall, the presentation was met with a warm reception from the group. Commissioner Chris Pagliaro called the project, “very charming.” Vice Chair Melissa-Jean Rotini said she was, “very excited. The renderings are great — I hope it looks like that.”

However, a few topics remain up for discussion as the proposal moves forward toward a full application, in particular, the Commission flagged a need to discuss the sidewalk location, traffic patterns, and a possible affordability component, as well as the specific language in the regulatory change Earls will be asking for.

As this was a pre-application review, none of the comments by the Commission or Earls and his representatives are considered binding. Should the project proceed to a full application, a formal review and public hearing would be held. There was some discussion about this potential next chapter, given that P&Z expects the master planning process for Greater Wilton Center to be complete around the end of this year.

“This is a great trade-off for Wilton residents, we get the preservation component and a change in density along Danbury Rd. This is exactly the type of thing that we’re looking at in terms of the improvements on Danbury Rd.,” Tomasetti explained. “If you’re telling me this is something you’re looking to bring at the very end of this year or early next year, I’m thinking we might already have some of [the regulatory changes] in place for you.”

Tensions Continue to Rise over Alternative Signage Proposal

The final project of the evening brought a tone decidedly more tense than the rest of the agenda. Hartford Healthcare Corporation returned for its third discussion with P&Z. At the prior meeting on Sept. 12, the application was continued when an increasingly prickly debate between attorney Jim Murphy and one commissioner over the appropriateness of affixing corporate logos to building facades erupted into an argument between the commissioners themselves.

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Although the team had been asked at both prior meetings to consider alterations to the initial signage proposal, they returned once again with largely the same application submitted in August. Repeated attempts by Hartford Healthcare to submit examples of branded signage at other sites in town have not seemed to sway the Commission, due to differences in the placement and nature of the signage from what is proposed for this property.

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Tomasetti opened the meeting by inviting Murphy to share “what if anything has changed since the last time we discussed your application.”

“Well, we have not changed the signs, if that’s the thrust of your question,” Murphy replied. He then continued with a line of discussion that quickly seemed to derail the mood even further.

“One of the concepts I had not raised is that we believe there is a constraint on this commission on regulating color. We have not raised that issue because we didn’t want to ‘go legal’ on you. But we are a point where we would like to see if there are any other questions from the Commission and get a sense of where the vote might go, and then either ask for a vote or ask for a continuance to develop those additional legal issues,” Murphy said, adding, “I expect you’ll want to have time to talk with [Town Counsel] Ira Bloom about those points.”

“You’re asking for a poll before you make an argument about color,” replied Rotini. “But I’m confused how you would know anyone and everyone who might vote against you would be doing so on the basis of color?”

Tomasetti called Murphy’s remarks ‘quasi-threatening’ and said, “If you have other arguments to make, you should either make them now or take time to prepare and come back to us. Alluding to ‘going legal’… quite frankly, I hear where you’re going and I don’t like that.”

“We thought going legal and saying ‘you’re not able to talk about color’ would be offensive,” Murphy explained. “I wanted to see if there was going to be any sentiment for us to pass this package without us bringing in the prohibition against regulating color. That was my reasoning, I guess I didn’t play it as well as I could have. For that, I apologize.”

“I don’t find it offensive for people to make legal arguments,” Rotini said. “Perhaps it’s because I’m a lawyer, but I would suggest if you have something that you think might be a concern than you can certainly provide that to us.”

On behalf of his client, Murphy elected to continue the application and return for a fourth discussion on the application, likely to take place at P&Z’s Monday, Oct. 24 meeting.

Next Steps

The next meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 11, and should include both the LDS Meeting House and a new 8-24 referral for a sewer extension that is part of a potential 8-30g affordable housing project at 19 Cannon Rd. The prior application was withdrawn in March.

Wrinn also updated the Commission that they should soon see a site plan for a hotel at the iPark site along the town border with Norwalk. In 2016, P&Z approved a regulation change to allow the project, but this is the first time a full application will be submitted.

Finally, Tomasetti gave a brief update on the Greater Wilton Center Master Plan process and said that the next meeting will be scheduled soon. Wrinn forecast that the next major topic of discussion for the subcommittee will focus on changes along Danbury Rd. rather than Wilton Center proper.