Planning & Zoning Updates: “Sharp Hill Square” Approved for 200 Danbury Rd

Though COVID-19 has put a halt to many plans, the Planning and Zoning Commission has been working dutifully (and virtually) to continue to shape Wilton’s future. Specifically, a project to transform 200 Danbury Road into a mixed-use development with retail and residential areas from developer Patrick Downend finally found definitive answers and approval for its new vision on June 8, 2020, with conditions.

The application calls to redevelop the property into a mixed-use development that will consist of “retail, offices and/or banks or financial institutions and twenty-four (24) residential units.” It was submitted in November of 2019 to the Inland Wetlands Commission and in January of 2020 to the Planning and Zoning Commission

Previously the site of Sheridan Interiors, a nail salon, and a floor covering business, the approximately 2.5-acre lot at 198-200 Danbury Road is situated on the corner of Sharp Hill Rd. and Route 7. Part of this site includes the historic Raymond Morehouse House. According to the development description, the current plan is to relocate (by about 90 feet North) and restore the structure for adaptive reuse. The other structures have been demolished.

The proposal, referred to as “Sharp Hill Square” in one design, states the owners desire to restore the Raymond Morehouse House and add two new buildings:  Building A, in which the ground floor would feature 3,800 square feet devoted to retail space, and 7,566 square feet for offices; the second level would offer 12 residential apartments (11,762 square feet total); and the third floor would have 10 residential apartments (10,198 square feet total). Proposed Building B, would have 3,456 square feet on its first floor for retail, and a second floor for three retail apartments with 3,452 square feet. The developer made slight changes to the original proposal after receiving feedback from the land-use commissions and town officials.

The development description also allots 103 parking spaces–30 of which will be located in a garage below building A, and the other 73 of which will be on-site.

The extensive application includes plans to protect the wetlands, minimize erosion by controlling water movement, and planting grass seeds. The proposal was revised based on feedback in the public hearing sessions and from town officials over time, most notably to increase meaningful public benefit. The application reflects years of work, with some, such as the Wetland Delineation, dated as early as October 2017.

The development is part of the “Greater Wilton Center Area” zone, in which the town expressed encouragement for mixed-use development in the Plan of Conservation and Development. The property is also part of the Design Retail Business District.

However, the plan had come under scrutiny during the Inland Wetlands public hearing sessions with people’s concerns about the health of the wetlands and a neighboring well, as well as potential for pollution.

During the Planning and Zoning Commission public hearing, residents expressed concern that the size of the proposed development could adversely affect neighboring properties and lead to more congestion. Additionally, some neighbors were worried that the property could result in noise, light, and water pollution and communicated their disdain of the increasing population density of the area. Others pointed to the safety concerns of not having a sidewalk.

Some of the conditions to the project’s approval addressed those community concerns by mandating that the developer “increase meaningful public benefit.” Notable conditions include installing sidewalks to lead to the nearby Norwalk River Valley Trail (entrance opposite of Wolfpit Road); a sidewalk on Sharp Hill Rd. heading east to the curb of the property; bike racks; and a kiosk to let people know where the NRVT is located, where Wilton Center is, and the historical significance of the Raymond Morehouse house.

In the June 8 meeting, when P&Z discussed the conditions, commission chair Richard Tomassetti ensured that the conditions were “all achievable.” The commission members also emphasized that the historic nature of the site factored into their recommendations and decision, including that the developer creates a “traditional natural stone wall” at the southern boundary to be indicative of New England character. Tomassetti said he thought the commission was very forward-thinking about this and considerate of the impacts.

Additionally, all plants planted must be native, trees must be at a certain height, and all light be shielded and screened on the rear of building A. Moreover, they said all work and physical improvements must be done within five years.

The approval went into effect on June 12, 2020. According to the initial P&Z application, it is estimated that it will take 16-24 months from approval to complete the project.

200 Danbury Rd site as of June 20, 2020

Timeline of the Project and Concerns

Because the site rests on existing wetlands, an application must be first passed by the Inland Wetlands Commission and then by the Planning and Zoning Commission. Concerns brought up during the public hearing parts include the safety of the nearby well, the large size of the buildings and if that would effect the wetlands, and if a buffer would be maintained.

Below is a timeline of the adjustments, commentary, and applications on the project:

  • Nov. 12, 2019:  Request for pre-application submitted to Village District Design Advisory Committee/Architectural Review Board for pre-application discussion of 200 Danbury Road development. The discussion continued at the Dec. 17, 2019 meeting, during which color scheme and materials were discussed, and the applicant said he would submit the application to P&Z in January.
  • Nov. 14, 2019:  The Inland Wetlands Commission accepted the application for 200 Danbury Rd LLC.
  • Dec. 12, 2019:   200 Danbury Road LLC’s application for mixed-use development was first considered during this Inland Wetlands Meeting. According to the notes, concerns were brought up about what runoff and potential flooding would happen on the property, as well as traffic that would increase because of the site.
  • Jan. 9, 2020:  Revisions were made to the initial application, confirming that they would reduce impervious surfaces and disturbances in recognition of the concerns brought up at the previous meeting. In the public hearing at the meeting, several neighbors shared concerns that the buffer be preserved. One neighbor in particular said he did not want the development to affect the well water, to which the applicant replied that he had no intent to impact the wells in the area and that the project’s stormwater drainage system was designed to help the wetlands. Another neighbor shared concerns that if the buildings were too large they could affect the wetlands negatively.
  • Jan. 13, 2020:  Planning and Zoning received their application, which was submitted on Jan. 8.
  • Jan. 23, 2020:  200 Danbury Rd LLC faced a violation for “unauthorized site work” noted in the Inland Wetlands Commission meeting–specifically, that siltation fencing was installed without a permit in an unregulated area. The applicant expressed this was because of a miscommunication about when work could begin, and the commission allowed the installation to continue to prevent soils from entering the wetland. Here, the applicant also requested to continue the public hearing on the February 13, 2020 meeting [in minutes was actually February 27].
  • Feb. 24, 2020:  The first public hearing opened for the Planning and Zoning Commission. The applicant went over the plans, and the commission reflected concern that the applicant still had not gotten approval from the Inland Wetlands Commission, the ARB, and the Wilton Police.
  • Feb. 27, 2020:  At the continued public hearing debate for the Inland Wetlands Commission, neighbors resisted the scale of the proposal and the potential impact to neighboring properties, and once again shared their concerns about the health of the neighboring well. The applicants assured the commission that revisions had been made based on the last hearing and comments from the Fire Department and Town Engineer, who had both signed off on the project after the revisions. A motion was moved to hire a third-party soil scientist to look at the wetlands, but it failed to carry through. The public comment period was then closed.
  • March 9, 2020:  Public hearing was continued and kept open for P&Z.
  • March 12, 2020: Inland Wetlands Commission approved the application, with additional conditions. One commissioner voted against it.
  • May 6, 2020:  The applicant responded to the concerns of the Architectural Review Board (ARB).
  • May 11, 2020:  The last public hearing debate for P&Z was held remotely. Five letters of opposition had been received concerning the scale of the project; limited green space and pollution; traffic safety and congestion; a request for larger trees at the properties’ rear for buffer; and less light from rear of buildings. The applicants confirmed that though they had not met since the last meeting, they had made progress on the application, getting approval from the Water Pollution Control Authority and had completed the review process with the ARB. The minor changes they made to the plan since the last meeting centered around Building B–reducing the width by 500 square feet to allow for more parking; and the Raymond Morehouse building–rearranging the curb line, moving the handicap ramp from the south side to north side; and adding five parking spaces on the south side of the house. They also planned to extend the sidewalks.
  • May 26, 2020:  P&Z commissioners reflected on their concerns for the 200 Danbury Rd. development. They felt that though the applicant met regulations and requirements for the site and they expected Wilton would benefit from it, the commission members reflected their disappointment at the “lack of creativity” in the design of the project and specific concerns that there was not enough intentional public benefit in the plans. Of note, they were concerned that there was not enough information or encouragement that people use the NRVT.
  • June 8, 2020:  The proposed project was approved unanimously by the P&Z Commission with conditions to increase public benefit, going into effect June 12, 2020.

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