The Greater Wilton Center Area Master Plan process hit a bump in the road last month during what would have been the final working meeting between the project’s subcommittee and the consulting team hired by the town. After a two-week break for the holidays, the subcommittee will reconvene tonight, Wednesday, Jan. 4, with consolidated feedback from the members and a plan for addressing claims by the consultant BFJ Planning that the project has gone over budget.
On Dec. 15, BFJ’s Jonathan Martin presented a draft proposal for a two-part zoning overlay that would divide nearby Danbury Rd. into north and south corridors.
Zoning overlays leave existing zoning in place but offer new uses and opportunities for projects that opt-in and agree to provide certain amenities or building elements a town wishes to incentivize.
- North Overlay District — Danbury Rd. north of Ridgefield Rd. to Pimpewaug Rd.
- Would allow multi-family and attached townhome residential uses
- Minimum lot size of two acres
- building heights up to 39 feet or three stories (P&Z could approve heights up to 49 feet or four stories for projects that are at least 15% affordable)
- density of up to eight dwelling units per acre (higher in transit-oriented development zone near the train station)
- Would require 10% of units to be affordable; the creation of new sidewalk and pedestrian connections to Wilton Center and the train station; and green building standards to be followed.
- South Overlay District — Danbury Rd. south of Ridgefield Rd. to Wolfpit Rd.
- Would extend Wilton’s existing Design Retail Business District across the area to allow commercial and retail useswould allow residential uses by special permit, with a minimum lot size of one acre and building heights up to 49 feet or four stories.
- Would require 15% of units to be affordable; the creation of new sidewalk and pedestrian connections to Wilton Center; and green building standards to be followed.
To date, the meetings have overwhelmingly focused on the other two elements of the project: the zoning changes proposed for Wilton Center proper and the broader master plan for the area. Although the concept of a zoning overlay along Danbury Rd. appeared to have the full support of the subcommittee, this marked the first time the members were presented with specific details on what BFJ planned to propose for this area.
The response from the subcommittee was far from the easy greenlight that would likely have been needed to remain on schedule for a public hearing on all three elements of the master plan later this month.
The Subcommittee Weighs in
“I’m feeling profoundly unhappy,” said Subcommittee member Barbara Geddis. “I know it’s the end of the year and everyone wants to be done, but I don’t think this is a one-meeting thing. This north/south overlay doesn’t seem to be doing what we want it to.” She took particular issue with unexplained differences in building height, density, and lot coverage between the two corridors.
Subcommittee member and Planning & Zoning Commissioner Chris Pagliaro also expressed disappointment with the proposal. “I don’t think we’re ready with this component. I don’t mean to be offensive but tonight I honestly look at as ‘we need to deliver something so let’s put something out there.’ I’m not satisfied.”
Rick Tomasetti, Chair of both the Subcommittee and P&Z, was more upbeat but floated the idea of rethinking the orientation of the two corridors along Danbury Rd. completely. Rather than separate zoning overlays for the north and south sections of the road, he proposed thinking of Danbury Rd. as east vs. west sections might make more sense. Geddis and Pagliaro both expressed support for this idea.
In addition to these bigger-picture concerns, the subcommittee had also flagged several specific elements of the proposal they said need further work. Several members objected to BFJ’s stated intention to leave Wilton’s existing parking requirements in place in much of the southern corridor and in the area of the northern corridor closest to the Wilton Train Station, where transit-oriented development may be appropriate. Pagliaro objected to existing setback requirements that he noted have already caused issues for projects being proposed along Danbury Rd., with Tomasetti adding that the widening of Route 7/Danbury Rd. left several properties out of compliance with Wilton’s setback regulations. Geddis argued for allowing greater lot coverage and lifting limits on residential density per acre.
On one topic in particular, the subcommittee appeared divided in their comments back to BFJ. Melissa Jean-Rotini, Vice Chair of both the Subcommittee and P&Z, began the discussion, taking issue with the affordable housing target set in the proposal.
“I don’t want to see 10% affordable housing. I have been hearing forever that you can’t do more than 10% affordable,” she said before referencing the town of Darien. “I’m pretty sure that their code says 12 [percent], and I think they’re increasing it potentially to 14 [percent]. Ten [percent] doesn’t help; it maintains the baseline or makes it worse. If we’re going to be changing this, why are we not going for the gusto and putting it at 12 with a 15-up?”
Tomasetti interjected with an argument that the average rents in towns like Darien or Westport, which recently raised its affordability requirement to 20%, are high enough to justify the cost to developers and owners of providing a greater share of affordable units, but that the same could not be said of Wilton.
Nonetheless, Subcommittee member and Architectural Review Board Vice Chair Sam Gardner echoed Rotini’s comment, stating that he would be “all in” on a more aggressive approach to affordable housing as well.
“At 10%, you wind up chasing your tail. You build more units but you don’t build enough affordability to offset what the goals of the state are,” he said, as he spoke to Tomasetti. “I understand your economic rationale, Rick, but there are movements and programs in the state that are helping towns realize how they can supplement the cost of affordability.”
“I think we need to have a special meeting on affordability,” Tomasetti responded, closing further discussion on the topic.
BFJ Planning Asks for a Supplemental Budget
Although BFJ Planning appeared open to exploring more significant changes to the proposal and revisiting specific elements of it, partner Frank Fish responded to the subcommittee’s comments by bringing up the matter of the project’s budget.
“I haven’t sent Michael [Wrinn, Town Planner] an invoice in three months because we are over budget,” he explained, “If this goes into 2023, I really need to ask you to consider a supplemental budget. We’ve gone through more meetings than outlined in the contract to get to this point. I don’t have another meeting budget.”
While Wrinn agreed to provide BFJ Planning with a consolidated set of comments from the subcommittee in hopes of streamlining the process, the subcommittee members were less quick to accede to Fish’s demands.
“If someone hires me to design a house, I don’t say, I handed you a design and I get a fee,” said Pagliaro. “I have to design the house until my client is satisfied, and I don’t find tonight very satisfying.”
Rotini also spoke up in response to the comments by Fish. “When a consultant goes over budget on an RFP process, you need to prove that you’ve provided all deliverables and then you need to submit a secondary scope of work and explain why those are not part of the original scope. I have to tell you, with all due respect — and I was a proponent of this particular group — I don’t like talk of an overage with deliverables being unfinished.”
Looking Ahead to Getting Public Input
For the first time, at least publicly, Tomasetti posed the option of separating the three elements of BFJ’s project into separate public reviews, which would allow the zoning changes in Wilton Center to proceed through to a public hearing on schedule.
Alluding to the proposals within Wilton Center to redevelop part of the Kimco campus and build multifamily housing at 12 Godfrey Place, he said, “We want to make sure that the ownership of these properties knows that we’re serious about moving forward and that we’re not all talk. We want to make meaningful changes, but we want to get it right.”
The meeting wrapped up with Tomasetti agreeing to speak with Wrinn the following day about the timeline and scope of the project, and the exact parameters of the town’s contract with BFJ. The Subcommittee scheduled a special meeting for tonight, Wednesday, Jan. 4, to go over consolidated feedback on the Danbury Rd. zoning overlay proposal.