In a somewhat surprising turnaround, the complicated special permit application for a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) meeting house at 241 Danbury Rd. that once seemed destined for a Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) denial, actually won approval.
Hopes were resurrected when Wilton’s Land Use Director and Town Planner Michael Wrinn introduced a compromise at last week’s P&Z meeting (Monday, Jan. 23), when commission members deliberated on the application.
It was a different tune from the meeting two weeks before (Mon. Jan. 9), when architects representing the LDS Church made their final of many appearances in front of Wilton land use commissions.
The proposed meeting house had already gone through several design reviews and architectural revisions since last June, yet P&Z commissioners were still unhappy, particularly with the building’s windows as well as with building materials and other design elements.
The project’s Arizona-based architects said they incorporated what they believed to be New England colonial design, even deviating from what their client in Salt Lake City typically prefers and calling it “an unusual project” for the Church.
“I need you to know that this is a very custom project that is designed for your community,” project architect Robin Benning told P&Z.
The commissioners were unimpressed with the design and what they believed was the applicants’ unwillingness to incorporate the commission’s requests and concerns, especially with regard to whether the building’s aesthetics fit Wilton — mostly regarding window size and exterior building materials.
But rather than work on a compromise as many of the commissioners had hoped, the applicant declined to keep the public hearing open and asked for a decision from P&Z.
As a result, during discussion on Jan. 9, many of the commissioners indicated they’d likely vote against approving the application. They stressed their feelings were not related to any design elements involved in religious practice, but rather their frustrations at the LDS’s perceived reluctance to make the changes P&Z had asked for.
They asked Wrinn to draft a resolution denying the application for the next meeting on Jan. 23, and asked him to make sure to look into the specific grounds they could use so as not to violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which protects houses of worship and religious institutions from “undue burdens” that may be imposed by land use regulations.
Wrinn Revises the Approach
As he began to prepare the resolution, Wrinn re-examined how the proposal had gotten to the point of a denial and whether it could be saved — especially with navigating the legal issue.
“They asked for a denial resolution. And I was having a difficult time putting a denial one together based on window size,” Wrinn told GOOD Morning Wilton. “In the clear light of day, you say, well, is this project going to get denied for one foot on a window? And can we defend that if we go to court?”
What’s more, he got the sense that because the out-of-town applicants weren’t familiar with Wilton’s local zoning and application process, they missed some critical points.
“They thought they were going to get another opportunity to speak with the commission after the public hearing. They just didn’t know the process. It was a case of they probably needed to have local council so they would know how the process works here or asked,” Wrinn added.
Prohibited from conferring with any commissioners between meetings, and without checking with the applicant, Wrinn took a leap of faith and drafted a resolution for approval that took the major points the commission had issues with and made them conditions of approval.
“We’re not asking them to cut off a floor. We’re not asking them to cut off the steeple. … If it’s such a minor piece for a special permit, I think we’d have a difficult time in court defending that. And part of my job is to see that our commission and the decisions they make are defendable,” he told GMW, adding, “This case is more sensitive because there’s another avenue for them to go, and once we go down that avenue to federal court, that’s a difficult road to go down.”
And if the P&Z commissioners accepted Wrinn’s resolution, but the applicant wasn’t willing to make the changes?
“My job is to protect the commission and, you know, if these guys are not happy with the resolution, my feeling is I’d rather go to court with an approval,” Wrinn said.
Wrinn’s gambit paid off.
His draft resolution to approve the application included conditions that the LDS Church would change the design, adding an extra foot in height to the windows and making the brick one color instead of two. The draft was well received by P&Z at the Monday, Jan. 23 meeting.
“With the additional notes that were made and the additional conditions of approval that were set forth by Mr. Wrinn, it does seem to me that that would now meet all of the requirements that we were looking for and what we were trying to do,” Acting P&Z Chair Melissa-Jean Rotini said. “I’m very much behind the resolution that Mr. Wrinn has drafted.”
Everyone else agreed, approving Wrinn’s new resolution unanimously 8-0. [P&Z Chair Rick Tomasetti had recused himself from deliberations on this application.]
“Welcome to the LDS to Wilton,” Rotini said following the vote.
With approval now in hand, Wrinn was hopeful the LDS Church would accept the compromise.
“I think it’s important that we thank them for working with us. It’s been a long run. I think they’ll be a good partner to have in town. I think it’ll be a good use of that property. …It’s all good,” he said.
This is a bunch of baloney. The LDS built a really nice looking Temple/Church up in Hartford back in 2016. Is it really that hard to replicate in 2023?
Agreed. But great article and details
Temples are unique buildings within the faith and serve different purposes than more traditional ‘churches’ or meetinghouses like the one in question. In general a single temple is intended to be frequented by members from many different congregations across a larger, regional area. There are ~80 in the USA compared to ~19,000+ meetinghouses. It isn’t as simple as building another one like the one in Hartford.
Meetinghouses are intended to be used by a couple of local congregations drawn from the immediate vicinity. To better manage costs, the church has standardized the design of its meetinghouses with some variability built in. Think of it like a new pickup truck; maybe you can choose the paint, the interior, the drive train, etc., but producing a one-off, convertible pickup truck just for you would be cost prohibitive. Similarly, while the church seeks to be a good community partner and produce buildings that blend with local styles and standards, there are limits.
Michael Wrinn, town planner is very good in developing workable compromises. When I was on the ZBA, he did this repeatability. Good Work P&Z!
More uninspired cookie-cutter architecture for Wilton. Welcome the new “mcmansion church” on Rt. 7.
Once again – the town should not have the power to dictate the design for buildings so precisely. Let people build any reasonable building. Do I think the building is super pretty? No. Do I think that should stop it getting built? Definitely not. Government should have limited authority.
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