With its goal of building a new, 14,000-sq.ft. headquarters at 863-875 Danbury Rd, the Connecticut Humane Society recently took another step in the long process toward approval of its plans by various Town of Wilton departments and commissions.
Appearing at the Sept. 23 meeting of the Inland Wetlands Commission, the Humane Society’s team presented the commission with detailed information about the potential impacts of the proposed development on the extensive wetlands on the roughly 18-acre property and the watercourse that cuts through it.
While the applicant’s plans have many features the commission finds desirable, the commission is proceeding cautiously, given the size and scope of the plans and the unique environmental aspects of the property. Residents, especially those on nearby New St., are also raising questions.
The meeting was recorded on Zoom, and the application materials can be found on the town website.
A Site in Need of Improvement
The detailed presentation by the Humane Society’s team included the site development plan, along with plans for grading, soil/erosion control, stormwater management, new septic design and extensive landscaping.
The actual development, as shown in the above rendering, will involve only about two of the property’s roughly 18 acres, which is largely hilly, very steep and wooded.
The plans include, among other features:
- Removal of existing drainage discharges to the watercourse
- Removal of existing septic systems, some in close proximity to the wetland and watercourse (Wilton’s sanitarian has already approved the new septic plan)
- Reduction in impervious pavement coverage, using new pervious pavement
- “Daylighting” a portion of the existing piped [paved over] watercourse, and expanding and enhancing wetland buffer areas within 25 feet of wetlands
The applicant claims the environment will actually be improved by the proposed development, with key benefits including “significant wetland restoration” and removal of invasive plant species.
Indeed, Environmental Affairs Department Director Mike Conklin described the current conditions on the site as “pretty crummy.”
“The site is definitely degraded,” Conklin told the commission.
Comparing the proposed plans to what he called the “do nothing” alternative, Conklin sees net improvement to the environment, even with the construction of a large building.
“When I’m looking at these plans and I’m seeing this opportunity… to restore that area, open up that length of stream which is currently piped, with asphalt on top of it, and recreate a wetland area and a stream, that’s a pretty big positive, a win for the environment with this application.”
Conklin judged the Humane Society would be better stewards of the property than past occupants.
“You’re going to have much more control in place over the environment of this 18-acre property. I think it’s a big win,” Conklin repeated.
“We’re helping with grading, and drainage, the septic system and erosion control,” said Craig Flaherty, the project’s lead engineer. “[Our] rule is ‘leave it better than you found it,’ and we think we’re accomplishing that.”
At least one commissioner, Theodora Pinou, seemed less convinced than Conklin and wanted some assurance that the applicant did not plan any future development on the site, beyond what was currently being proposed.
“There’s no question this is an opportunity to reclaim an important aquifer…. but let’s just make sure this is done the right way,” said Pinou, as she challenged the applicant, “Do we have confirmation that the rest of the property will not be developed?”
Land-use attorney Jim Murphy, with law firm Gregory and Adams, responded that, although his client would reserve the right to do so, “There is no current plan for additional development… There is absolutely no current plan, no current design, no nothing. And anything that would happen would have to come back before this commission and before P&Z.”
Murphy’s response did not appear to fully satisfy Pinou’s concern about the property in the long term. Pinou also indicated she would be further exploring concerns about the handling of biohazardous waste.
Hurdles To Overcome
Before the proposed plan can move forward, the Humane Society will ultimately need the Inland Wetlands Commission’s approval for an application that would permit “significant regulated activity” under the commission’s purview.
Before deliberating on such approval, commissioners felt a walk of the site would be needed. The public hearing will be held open until the commission has an opportunity to do so, and the applicant can appear before the commission again, likely on Oct. 14.
The Inland Wetlands application is in addition to applications required from the Planning & Zoning Commission (P&Z), which has conducted its own pre-application review of the plans.
Though P&Z (as well as Wilton’s Architectural Review Board) have encouraged the Humane Society to continue its planning work, some neighbors in the Danbury Rd. area have since begun to voice concerns about the project, as revealed when the public hearing was first opened.
Several residents, particularly neighbors on New St. and others in the vicinity of the proposed facility, submitted written testimony (their letters can be seen on the town website) or spoke during a recent P&Z meeting with the following key concerns:
- Noise: notably from an outdoor play area planned for the animals
- Difficult left turns for cars exiting the property (potentially complicating turns for cars turning onto Danbury Rd. from New St.)
- Modern architecture
- General disruption and changing character of the area
During the Inland Wetlands Commission meeting, only comments related to the wetlands were allowed, and some residents did raise questions.
Suggesting the possibility that previous occupants of the property may have buried contaminated materials, Matthew Kehoe of New St. asked, “What assurances is the developer providing on the safe removal of any contaminated soil or sediment on the property that could affect the wetlands?”
The applicant’s team agreed to consider that question and respond at the next meeting. Kehoe expressed surprise that they were not prepared to respond to his question, leading him to ask, “Has there not been a thorough study?”
Dina Livesay, also of New St., expressed concern about potential disturbance of species in vernal pools. Kate Throckmorton, the landscape expert on the project, indicated that vernal pools were not found on the property, but the team agreed to verify that assumption.
Eileen Fitzgerald, yet another New St. resident who also submitted a letter of opposition to P&Z, said she was “relying heavily” on the commission to look carefully at the proposed plans to “make sure the beauty of Wilton is maintained” and “the long-term safety of the wetlands on the site” is assured.
Fitzgerald expressed skepticism, given the sheer size of the building, that it would not encroach upon the wetlands.
Alena Murphy raised questions about how much of the property would remain wooded, as well as the handling of animal waste.
The applicant team indicated they would address the outstanding questions at the next Inland Wetlands Commission meeting.