Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Commission had a hefty agenda to lift at its Monday evening, May 23 meeting. The most substantial topic that commissioners considered was a special permit application by the Wilton Land Conservation Trust (WLCT) to use a historic barn on its 183 Ridgefield Rd. property as an educational center. The property is a 13-acre site that includes open fields, forest, and inland wetlands.

GOOD Morning Wilton’s coverage of the other topics discussed by Planning and Zoning on Monday night — reaction to Kimco Realty’s Wilton Center redevelopment ideas, seven high-rise buildings proposed near the Wilton/Norwalk border, and regulating short term rentals — can be found here.

Steve White, President of the Trust, opened the presentation by clarifying that the group is a 501c3 registered non-profit organization and is not affiliated with the town of Wilton itself, which he said was a frequent source of confusion for the public. Established in 1964, WLCT’s mission is to protect nature and prevent the loss of Wilton’s unique natural, scenic, historical, and recreational values. The group currently protects and preserves more than 800 acres of natural areas in Wilton.

White outlined the recent history of the site, which the Trust purchased in 2020 from a developer who had originally intended to build condos on the property. Later that year, the Daniel Offutt Estate donated a small antique barn, which was carefully disassembled and rebuilt in a clearing at 183 Ridgefield Rd. The structure itself measures 39 feet by 28 feet and it is an amalgamation of three different barns from the 18th and 19th centuries that have been combined into one. With the relocation now complete, WLCT is now seeking a permit to operate an educational/museum facility in the barn, providing indoor gathering space in inclement weather, sanitary facilities for visitors, and a small office for the organization’s director.

The project was designed by architect Rob Sanders, who also chairs Wilton’s Architectural Review Board (ARB). The Trust received a favorable review of the permit from ARB earlier this month in a presentation that Sanders recused himself from. During the P&Z hearing, Sanders described the improvements planned for the site, including a septic system that can serve up to 50 visitors a day, a modest eight-space parking lot, and a driveway that follows the existing path approved by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).

He shared examples of the kind of programming that WLCT currently offers, such as Books and a Blanket, an immersive reading event for kids; Turtle Time, a wildlife education program; and Trekking Together, a guided hiking club. He also described plans to share the site with peer organizations who have supported WLCT’s efforts and may not have similar space of their own to host events: the Wilton Historical Society would like to do a program on growing flax and producing linen; the Silvermine Arts Center would like to host plein-air painting workshops; and the American Chestnut Foundation would like to explore creating a disease-resistant version of the American Chestnut tree. Landscape designer Sylvia Erskine and engineer Tom Nelson also presented, explaining their elements of the site plan.

Although the commissioners expressed support for the project at a high level, they raised several concerns about a lack of detail and the need for more extensive planning and permitting rules on the use of the site.

“I understand what you are trying to do here—keep it rural, keep it charming. But when I hear you say that a school bus can’t fit up the driveway, I worry about whether a fire truck can. When I hear that you are putting in a septic system for fifty people, I question whether you need more than eight spaces for parking,” Chair Rick Tomasetti said.

He urged the project team “up your game” and develop a more robust site plan as they would for any commercial property coming before the Commission. “Whatever you’re doing with the site — good, bad, or otherwise — you all have to live up to the standards in our code.” He also encouraged them to begin the review process with the police and fire departments and Conservation Commission. Review by the Inland Wetlands Commission will not be required because the project site lies sufficiently far away from protected areas of the property.

Commissioner Chris Pagliaro also challenged whether plans for water drainage and storm runoff were sufficient, a concern that a neighbor would echo later in the discussion.

Patti Frisch, who lives across the street from 183 Ridgefield Rd., told commissioners about her concerns with the development of the property.

“I’m downhill from that site and there is a real water problem on Ridgefield Rd,” she said. “It begins above this property and continues past it.” She also expressed concern over the lighting plans for the site, which call for floodlighting until 10 p.m. and “commercial creep” in the use of the facility.

Architect Barbara Geddis also spoke during the public hearing, expressing a need for more water facilities at the barn, including a source of drinking water for visitors.

The project team agreed to return to the Commission with additional details on the project and more robust site plan.