GOOD Morning Wilton recently reported on the CT Humane Society’s (CHS) preliminary plans for a new facility at 863 Danbury Rd. in north Wilton.
Within the last few days, the CHS plans were discussed before two town boards: Wilton’s Architectural Review Board (ARB) on March 4 and the Planning and Zoning Commission on March 8. Both of those meetings suggested the plans show real promise and warrant proceeding further.
According to the “modern and forward-looking” conceptual designs and a draft site plan, the facility would feature an animal shelter, a veterinarian clinic, and offices, as well as pathways, exterior animal runs and play areas.
Last Thursday, March 4, Wilton’s Architectural Review Board (ARB) conducted a “pre-application review” of the CHS plans for the 18-acre property.
A pre-application review is an informal discussion between an applicant and town officials, just the first step in the process toward a final development plan, which may or may not ultimately be approved by the town. As Town Planner Michael Wrinn explained in the meeting, “These are just thoughts, ideas and opinions provided by the [ARB] members to the applicant and are non-binding all respects.”
Wilton’s ARB is responsible for the review of any special permit and site plan application involving new construction, with an eye to things like design, architectural concept and appearance, material use, and more. It follows different guidelines when the site is located outside of a designated village district, as is the case with the proposed CHS site. (Applications within a designated village district would have their own review procedures.)
“A Lot of Potential”
In response to the plans presented by the architectural, design and engineering team for the project, ARB chair and local architect Rob Sanders set the tone for the meeting with his first comments.
“I’d like to just extend compliments both to the [CHS] for pursuing some serious architecture and to the designers for presenting something that is really a beacon for that area.”
Sanders felt there had not been anything architecturally meaningful in the area “since the Gilbert and Bennett building was done” in the early 1900s.
“This is upping the game,” Sanders said. “This is a gateway building for the town and it’s got a lot of potential here.”
Still, some sizable hurdles and obstacles exist for development on the 18-acre property (described numerous times during the meeting as “very unique”) with several existing structures, wooded areas, steep slopes, wetland constraints, and limited options for a driveway entrance on Danbury Road (which has to be permitted by the state). In the draft plan, the entrance is directly opposite New Street.
Despite the fact that the property has 18 acres, only a fraction of that is actually useable for CHS’s purposes. Jim Murphy, the Gregory & Adams land use attorney for the project, likened the property to “a real puzzle” in terms of complying with caps on removing rock, steep slope disturbances, and various other regulations.
One question posed by the ARB was whether the proposed 15,000-square-foot building could have a smaller footprint if it were not the single-story as proposed.
CHS executive director James Bias responded that CHS’s experience with other properties has been that multiple-story buildings are often “problematic” when it comes to moving necessary equipment and the animals themselves.
ARB member Sam Gardner, while personally appreciating the proposed architectural design, cautioned the team that they might meet some resistance from others in the town on the modern design choice. He pointed to the Wilton Library as one of the only beloved modern buildings in Wilton.
A Key Concern: Parking
While the board members seemed enthusiastic about the way the proposed architecture was integrated with the landscape, and about the choice of materials, there was less consensus on the plans for parking.
As Sanders said, “The site and building have a dialogue with one another. The idea of the building presents beautifully in the rendering [but] my question is the number of [parking] spaces.”
The proposed plan includes 65-68 parking spots. That seemed high to some ARB members, but Bias explained that parking needs to be ample enough for programs at the facility’s education center and other special events. The number of parking spots was also largely formulaic based on the share footage and intended use of the building.
Parking also posed some aesthetic issues for the ARB. Gardner was one member who raised this concern. “The rendering suggests there is a foreground to the building which isn’t all paved,” he said, encouraging the team to “think more elaborately about the landscape plan” in a way that created the desired outdoor spaces for people coming and going with their animals. Gardner suggested the plan might benefit from “a way to de-emphasize the car but amp up the whole experience of being outside the building, inside this building, with the animals.”
Murphy noted that they might be able to reduce the area for the more visible parking lot and increase the “overflow” parking area further away from the road.
Sanders also raised a concern about animal safety with the building entrance facing a busy Danbury Road with cars traveling at high rates of speed. As pet-owners go in and out of the building with their pets, is there a risk some might run into the road?
The CHS agreed to consider this issue, along with potential ways to reduce, screen or soften the appearance of parking areas.
Gardner summarized the ARB reaction at the close of the meeting. “We’re all pretty excited about this. Keep going,” he told the CHS team.
On Monday, March 8, Wilton’s P&Z Commission conducted its own pre-application review of the CHS plans.
Early in the discussion, P&Z chair Rick Tomasetti zeroed in what he called the elephant in the room: the proposed 15,000-square-foot structure, which explicitly violates the current regulation of 10,000 square feet.
The regulation is a narrowly defined one that applies specifically to the special permit for a charitable organization in a residential zone on Danbury Road.
Attorney Murphy indicated CHS would be seeking a text amendment (not a zoning change per se, but additional language for the special permit). Murphy argued that since the construction of 10,000 square feet is allowed for a charitable organization on one acre, then higher square footage could reasonably be permitted for an 18-acre property. At 10 times the property size, a building only 1.5 times size seems reasonable, according to Murphy.
Tomasetti seemed inclined to agree on the reasonableness of the request, but worried about the creation of such “loopholes” in the regulations.
Murphy indicated the legal team would propose a text amendment in the final application. Murphy requested the commission’s guidance on whether to use the 10-times rationale in the text amendment (as they were inclined to propose), or a sliding scale or another formulaic approach (which commissioners like Melissa-Jean Rotini suggested might be more appropriate).
Murphy believes the CHS application is even stronger if other factors are considered, namely, the highly unique topography of the property. Murphy called the steep slope (shown in light gray in the photo below) cutting a huge swath across the rear side of the property “a super buffer” which provides a “remarkable insulating factor” in a residential zone.
Murphy also noted that existing buildings on the property would be demolished, but development would be generally confined to the same area. There is little intention to disturb previously undisturbed areas, including a hilly knoll with mature trees that would remain between the new building and a parking area.
Another Concern: Neighborhood Noise
Several properties (in the area of Mountain Road and some subdivisions) border the proposed CHS site along the lengthy west side. The commission received a letter from one resident couple who made a literal “not in my backyard” argument in opposition to the proposed plan.
The letter says, “According to the draft site plans, there will be pathways and exterior animal runs and play areas and a rather large parking lot. This concerns us. What will be done to keep the sounds from traveling? What will be used to buffer the sounds of the animals and people and cars? This will be directly located in the back of our home…a parking lot, a gravel drive, outside runs and play areas. It is a shame… how much the quality of our living in our residential home will affect us.”
The homeowners feel the proposed plans are “way, way too big for Wilton” and, even if constructed on a smaller scale, believe noise will be a nuisance in their neighborhood.
At least one P&Z commissioner, Chris Pagliaro, felt the concern about sound traveling upward toward the Mountain Road area neighbors was legitimate, and encouraged the CHS team to consider it before their final application.
As with the ARB, the P&Z commissioners were generous in their praise of the quality of CHS’ plans in terms of the architecture, design and engineering.
Pagliaro (an architect) said the “the architecture is excellent” and that the facility would be “a great asset to the town should it happen.”
Tomasetti (also an architect) told the team, “You’re making the environment better, the streetscape better, the architecture better, and bringing vibrancy to the area” and encouraged them to “keep up the good work” in their final application.
Replacing Westport’s CHS Location?
Wilton residents may be familiar with the existing CHS location at 455 Post Road East in Westport. GMW reached out CHS to inquire what the proposed Wilton location might mean for the Westport location.
Susan Wollschlager, the marketing and communications manager of the CHS, replied in an email, “CHS’ Westport property is aging and on a small plot of land on a main road, causing challenges when walking dogs, housing pets for long-term care, accommodating large groups of visitors (pre-Covid), making repairs, installing new medical equipment, and more. A lot of creativity is required to make everything run smoothly at the nearly 80-year-old building.”
With such challenges, Wollschlager indicated that eventually the Westport location would be closed, but offered assurance that would not happen before the Wilton facility is fully operational. “CHS would always have an open and operating location in Fairfield County,” she said.