Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) had a full agenda at Tuesday’s Oct. 12 meeting. The marathon meeting included multiple public hearings and consideration of other matters, but the most complex agenda item involved the Connecticut Humane Society‘s application for a new headquarters on 863-875 Danbury Rd.
Following earlier and generally favorable pre-application reviews by both P&Z and the Architectural Review Board (ARB), P&Z opened a public hearing on the CHS application on Sept. 13. That hearing revealed some opposition and several key questions and concerns among residents, particularly those who live in the neighborhoods closest to the property.
The most significant concerns pertain to noise and traffic, as well as the proposed modern architecture in proximity to the historic district of Georgetown.
In response, CHS management, along with a team of lawyers, engineers, architects, landscape designers, sound engineers and traffic experts, returned to face P&Z at the commission’s Oct. 12 meeting, making a full-court press to address the questions and criticisms that had been raised to date.
Detailed application materials — including site plans, traffic studies, letters of support or opposition, and other documentation — along with a video recording of the Oct. 12 public hearing and P&Z meeting can be found on the Town website.
Appearing to take the residents’ concerns very seriously, the CHS team came to the latest public hearing prepared to respond in methodical detail.
First to present was CHS director of operations Theresa Geary, who described the routine activities and procedures that would take place at the CHS facility.
She began by saying that large numbers of animals were not expected at the facility at any one time, although there will certainly be animals on-site moving through the rehabilitation process, Geary clarified.
“We’re not warehousing animals on this property. Nearly three-quarters of this building is really designed as people space, not animal space.”
She added, “We want to be a community resource for the immediate community and the extended community to make sure these animals and these families are getting the education and information they need to be better pet owners and keep those animals in the home.”
The team also provided P&Z with its policy statements and standard operating procedures, including all cleaning and disinfecting processes, which are “designed to preserve animal, human and environmental health and safety.”
Several neighbors of the property have expressed concerns about noise from dogs barking.
CHS has indicated dogs would be taken outside for 20 minutes at least two times per day. They would only be in the two fenced play areas, and only between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Furthermore, they would be alone or in small groups approved by animal behavior staff and accompanied by humans at all times. For those reasons, excessive barking was not anticipated.
CHS hired an acoustic engineering firm, SH Acoustics, LLC, (SHA) to conduct an analysis at the site taking the proposed plans into consideration. SHA acoustic design and noise control expert Kevin Peterson presented the findings of the analysis, which concluded:
“After visiting the site and performing this sounds study, SHA has found that as designed, the expected noise levels will be compliant with the noise limits as defined in the Wilton zoning regulations for daytime use while dogs are outside, as well as compliant with the nighttime hours while dogs are inside the facility.”
“Further, the noise levels will also be equal to or below the current background noise levels even in moments when there is no vehicle traffic driving by on Route 7 meaning that subjectively, dog barks will either be very faint or completely inaudible for the residents at neighboring properties.”
SHA’s report concluded, “We are confident that the proposed facility will not be an auditory nuisance to the neighbors.”
The SHA report can be found within supplementary documentation posted on the Town website.
At least two neighbors (one couple, Holger and Jennifer Donath) who live at an adjacent Mountain Rd. property) attended the public hearing and voiced strong objections to the proposed application, mainly regarding potentially excessive noise, but also about the possible risk of property value loss as a result of protracted disruption to the area.
“We support the mission of the Humane Society and the humane treatment of animals. All we’re saying is, this is the wrong location. This is a residential neighborhood, and it’s going to have a huge impact on the people who live here. There has to be a better place to find it,” Holger Donath said.
He compared the proposed location to animal shelters in Ridgefield, Bethel and Milford that are not in residential districts.
Jennifer Donath, who said she was a doctor of audiology, took great exception to the acoustic study’s design and conclusions, calling the study “two-dimensional” and arguing that intermittent loud barking would be intrusive to neighbors even if not at a decibel level above the normal “hum” of Danbury Rd. traffic.
CHS also took the opportunity to address any concerns about interior noise reaching neighbors, explaining all aspects of the building’s construction as they would relate to noise transmission, including the use of double-pane, inoperable windows, among other noise mitigation efforts. The details are included in the supplemental documentation posted on the town website.
CHS also responded to some residents who believe the proposed modern architecture is out of step with the historic character of much of the Georgetown area.
Speaking on behalf of CHS, Gregory & Adams land use attorney Jim Murphy defended the choice.
“We are not in the historic district,” Murphy asserted. “The design here was intended to be forward-looking. It was well received by the ARB. We don’t make any bones about it. And I would submit, other than driving by it, we don’t loom over or have an impact on anyone in the historic district.”
As summarized in a written response to comments in the initial public hearing,
“Given the property is not within the historic district, regulations regarding design do not fall within the historic guidelines. The architectural language for the new [CHS] building is informed by the organization’s aspirations for developing a facility reflective of their values — providing a professional and compassionate environment to support the adoption and treatment of animals.”
“The Humane Society’s goals were to create a welcoming and safe atmosphere in a modern and forward-looking building. A flat roof design, typical for a commercial structure of this type, is not only appropriately scaled to the site, but also creates a design integral with the site, allowing more of the natural landscape to be visible. Other roof forms would be larger in scale and less appropriate for this site in the surrounding landscape.”
The CHS statement repeated, “The property is not within a historic district and therefore the applications do not need to be reviewed by the [Historic District Commission].”
Tom Quarticelli, principal architect on the project, defended the design as well.
“We are creating a building we feel sits better with the site, is more integral with the site… we created a building that we feel is warm and friendly, has the right sense of scale, and materials that are selected to work well with the wooded site.”
He cited large expanses of glass and exterior materials that work well with the natural surroundings, and create an inviting, open and organic look and feel.
Among its original application materials, CHS conducted a traffic study which was presented at the Sept. 13 P&Z meeting. Residents challenged its validity for excluding Saturday car volume at the nearby Gilbert & Bennett sports field on New St. where youth soccer games are held both in the fall and spring.
To answer those concerns CHS experts presented the results of a second traffic impact study, called the “Saturday Midday Field Event Peak Hour Sensitivity Analysis,” that traffic engineering firm, Hardesty & Hanover, conducted.
“We looked at all the concerns of the residents as well as the [commission],” said H&H’s Ken Cipolla. He explained that soccer games occur for 8-9 weeks each spring and fall, on Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., with the “peak hour” from 11:30-12:30.
The study estimated that the games produce an average of 48 cars per hour at peak times. Focusing on the intersection of Danbury Rd. and New St. — just opposite where the CHS entrance would be — the study concluded the resulting impact was not “significant” compared to a typical Saturday at that intersection.
Cipolla highlighted minimal added wait times for residents at the intersection and emphasized, “The [CHS] driveway meets CT DOT intersection site distance requirements” including consideration for the southbound lane merge that is over 500 feet away from the driveway.
The field event traffic impact study can be found within supplementary documentation posted on the Town website.
How The Process Will Unfold From Here
The CHS team clearly hopes to satisfy residents’ lingering concerns, to get past the period of public comment and receive a favorable decision by P&Z on the most critical next step: approval of a proposed amendment to Section 29-5.A.3.r of Wilton Zoning Regulations pertaining to the special permit use of charitable organizations on residentially zoned properties.
The proposed change would be a prerequisite for the eventual special permit needed by the CHS to develop the property.
Currently, the 1-acre residential zoning limits construction to a 10,000-sq.ft. building per 1-acre lot. With a parcel that is roughly 18 acres, the applicant has argued it would reasonable to allow a single building larger than the 10,000-sq.ft. limit. CHS has designed a building that would be 14,243 square feet.
To work around the current zoning restriction, CHS proposes that the regulation allow 750-sq.ft. of building per additional acre on parcels larger than 1 acre. If amended, the new regulation would apply to all parcels in the zone, not just the applicant’s property.
P&Z chair Rick Tomasetti has previously indicated he is open to such a change in the regulation.
“The text change does things that we have discussed during our Plan of Conservation and Development, which is to be a little bit more forward-thinking about our zoning,” he said in the Sept. 13 meeting, later adding, “This is a good example of adding some elasticity to our existing regulations. The regulations were formulated some time ago and may be not overly appropriate today, for current uses … This is a very good and creative solution.”
On a parallel track, CHS is also working through the approval process with the Inland Wetlands Commission.
The P&Z public hearing has been extended until the applicant’s team re-appears at a future P&Z meeting, most likely on Nov. 8. Notice will be posted on the Town website.