There’s GOOD news for outdoor dining in Wilton, following the Monday, April 25 meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission. Discussion on whether to extend COVID-19-era law on dining alfresco permits in order to match state law was one of the items on a lighter-than-usual agenda for P&Z.
The Commission moved briskly through that and other agenda topics, including a pre-application review that was met with a mostly positive reception; a project proposal that was approved to bypass a full application process; and updates on a series of regulations at the State-level that may have impacts on public participation at meetings and land use in Wilton.
Extending Outdoor Dining Regulations
Last month, Gov. Ned Lamont signed a bill extending the right of restaurants to offer outdoor dining for an additional 13 months. This state law was introduced at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic to provide support for the dining industry.
Monday night, the Commission opened a public hearing seeking to hear comments, either in favor or opposed, from Wilton residents and business owners on the topic; however, no speakers attended and no letters had been received. Therefore, P&Z closed the public hearing and moved ahead, unanimously approving a change in language in the town regulations to reflect the new state law.
According to the amended town regulations, any restaurant currently operating with an approved outdoor dining permit can reapply to extend the permit through April 30, 2023, without interruption. However, any new temporary dining establishment will have to submit a new application and seek a new permit.
Opting out of State Parking & ADU Regulations
Town Planner Michael Wrinn advised the Commission that he will appear before the Board of Selectmen (BOS) next month to raise the topic of opting out of state regulations on parking and accessory dwelling units (ADUs).
As explained in earlier presentations, Wilton’s own regulations, especially on ADUs, are significantly more flexible and progressive than the regulations the state recently passed. On April 11, P&Z voted in favor of opting out of the state’s regulations. However, the Commission cannot make that decision alone — the BOS also needs to vote in favor of opting out. If the town takes no action by Jan. 1, 2023, the state regulations will go into effect, overriding Wilton’s local rules.
The Future of Remote Commission Meetings — Also State-Related
Finally, on the topic of remote municipal meetings, Wrinn conveyed to the Commission that there is still no clarity from state legislators about the future of this popular COVID-era regulation. He briefly discussed what the protocol for P&Z Commission meetings will be in the event that the State Senate does not pass the legislative extension before the deadline this Saturday, April 30.
“If it doesn’t pass, we will need one commissioner to attend the meetings in person at Comstock,” Wrinn explained, noting having only one person present in the municipal building would “validate” the meeting, allowing the other commissioners to attend remotely via Zoom. However, P&Z staff, applicants, and members of the public would be required to attend in person, a stipulation he called “a little strange.”
When asked for his take on the likely outcome of the bill, Wrinn admitted he’d heard conflicting predictions. “When it went through the House, it passed, but not unanimously,” he told the Commission. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen in the State Senate.”
Vice chair Melissa-Jean Rotini said she found it “shocking” that the legislature would possibly allow remote meetings to expire. “This has clearly made it easier for people to participate. So now Commissioners can do it from home but the public has to come in person? What sense does that make?” she asked.
Wrinn noted that he hoped there would be a clearer indication of next steps as soon as Tuesday, April 26. He added that, regardless of the outcome of the legislation, Wilton’s P&Z Commission will continue to use Zoom as a way to permanently record its meetings.
Minor Modifications to 141 Danbury Rd. Plans
The developers of the 173-unit multi-family complex proposed for the former site of the Melissa & Doug corporate office returned to P&Z five months after receiving approval for the project with a slight alteration to the building’s public and administrative areas.
Wrinn explained that he felt the change constituted a “minor modification,” meaning a change insignificant enough that a new application and public hearing would not be required. The final decision on this matter is the purview of the Commission.
Samuel Fuller, president of Fuller Development, presented and explained the alterations being requested. The applicant was seeking approval to move one ground floor apartment to the fourth floor in order to free up space for a larger package room for residents and to enclose a roof deck in glass to extend its availability as a gathering space in the spring and fall months.
“People are still working from home — we thought it would ease up, but it’s here to stay,” he said, explaining that package deliveries and food deliveries are in greater demand than ever, as are flexible, communal public spaces.
Chair Rick Tomasetti responded to the presentation succinctly, “We scrutinized this original application. I don’t deem this as something we need to open back up. You’re not changing the footprint, you’re not changing coverage. It seems like mostly a swap.”
The Commission voted unanimously to approve the change as a minor modification and bypass a full application process. Fuller thanked the commissioners for their ideas during the discussions last year and shared that demolition of the existing building is imminent.
“We submitted for our building permit,” he said. “We’re ready to roll right into construction.”
Rerouting Garage Access at 77 Danbury Rd.
The Commission also held a pre-application review for a change to driveway paths at the ASML complex at 77 Danbury Rd. In a presentation, attorney Jim Murphy of Gregory and Adams depicted the circuitous path from Rte. 7 to the employee parking garage that roughly 500 vehicles drive through each day. He explained that reconfiguring the driving route along a shorter but steeper path will require a text amendment to relax town regulations about altering slopes on properties within the town.
The Commission reviewed a preliminary draft of such a text amendment, which Murphy clarified would only affect four sites in Wilton, one of which is ASML. The other three are part of Wilton Woods Corporate Campus and Wilton Corporate Park, and none are expected to pursue significant grading or engineering changes such as this.
Overall, the Commissioners seemed open to considering a relaxation in the steep slope regulations for a property of this size.
“This seems to be one of our regs geared more toward residential zones, and specifically our subdivisions,” Tomasetti said. On larger lots, he agreed, the threshold may be set too low.
However, Rotini questioned whether the narrowness of the proposed text amendment was truly a benefit. “I appreciate your attempt to avoid unintended consequences, but I don’t want to narrow these so much that we end up doing one-off changes.” She also pointed out that although only a few sites in Wilton would currently qualify under the proposed language, sites can always be combined in the future.
Murphy offered that the team would put together a series of options for text amendment strategies and submit them to Wrinn for advice on which the Commission would be most amenable.
The next meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission is scheduled for Monday, May 9. Depending on the outcome of the State Senate vote on remote meetings, this session may be held in person at Comstock Community Center.
New special permit applications by Sweet Peet to allow a contractor’s yard at 586 Danbury Rd. and by the Wilton Land Conservation Trust to allow new parking and programming uses at 183 Ridgefield Rd. are expected to be on the agenda at either the May 9 meeting or the following one on Monday, May 23.