During its Monday, Mar. 14 meeting, the Planning and Zoning Commission held a heated discussion about a proposed extension of Wilton’s public sewer main from Danbury Rd. to 19 Cannon Rd. The project falls into the category of an 8-24 referral, a Connecticut statute that requires an opinion from the local planning and zoning commission for certain municipal improvement projects, including the extension of public sewers.
Technically, the sewer extension was the only matter on the agenda. What wasn’t up for discussion were the merits of the project the sewer would be meant to serve: a 3.5-story, 70-unit development on a 2.1-acre parcel that hasn’t yet begun to make its way formally through the land-use permission process.
Still, it was obvious in the submitted proposal that the extension will lay the infrastructure for a significantly larger development than is currently allowed on the site — a hint that the developer intends to invoke 8-30g, Connecticut’s affordable housing law. The 8-30g statute effectively allows developers to sidestep local zoning if a project includes affordable housing units in a town where less than 10% of available housing options are considered affordable.
The implications of this future development loomed large in the discussion, even as commissioners debated whether the ultimate project could reasonably be considered in the topic under review that evening.
Presentation & Questions
Town Planner Michael Wrinn opened the discussion by welcoming town counsel Peter Gelderman to answer legal questions about the process.
Gelderman explained that the Commission should take into account the current Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) as part of the review process, but he had slightly more opaque guidance on how the commissioners should weigh their knowledge of the developer’s ultimate intentions for the site.
“Don’t take into account that it may or may not be an 8-30g project, that’s irrelevant to your consideration,” he said. “Although what’s not irrelevant is the fact that there may be a multi-family development there, because part of your planning hat is to determine appropriate locations for multi-family housing.”
Peter Romano of the civil and environmental engineering firm LANDTECH presented to the Commission representing Robert Andrews, owner of the site and applicant for the sewer extension. After outlining the positive findings of a capacity report prepared for the application, Romano made the case for the extension.
“Your Plan of Conservation and Development recommends the extension of the sanitary sewer in the Cannondale area,” he said. “And in fact, in 2011, there was a sanitary sewer approved in this area to serve another multi-family development. The project never moved forward but there is precedent for sanitary sewer being extended in this area.”
Wrinn explained that the previous approval was for a sewer line extension that would service the Cannondale village across the train tracks from this site.
Commission Vice Chair Melissa-Jean Rotini asked Gelderman for clarity on Romano’s reference to the 2011 approval. “The presenter said that there was precedent but if that was a different application with a different plan and a different POCD, it’s not binding, right? And, frankly, is it even relevant?”
Gelderman replied, “It could be relevant if you decide it’s relevant. Is it legally binding? No. You will determine which criteria you think are appropriate and act accordingly.”
Commission Chair Rick Tomasetti spoke to Romano directly. “You point to the POCD that says this is an area that has the ability or possibility to extend the sewer. You point to the idea that there’s a mixture of uses, increasing density and housing types, and that’s all for sure in our POCD. What you don’t point to is that our POCD also includes the fact that we are actively master planning certain areas.”
He explained that town resources would not allow concurrent master planning processes for all of Wilton’s commercial areas at once. Instead, they are being done in phases, the first being Wilton Center, which is already underway. Cannondale is expected to be the third in the series.
“Why should we forgo our own planning and extend a sewer for you before we understand what we want to do in Cannondale writ large?” he asked.
“My answer to that is: you don’t base your planning on utilities, that’s bad planning,” Romano replied. “You plan your planning on planning.”
Rotini followed up on Romano’s reference to the POCD with additional excerpts which she asked him to respond to.
“You’re referencing the sewer extension possibilities in the POCD but it specifically states on page 88 that public infrastructure extensions are not intended for changes in use. It would seem to me that you’re presenting a sewer extension with a change in use, which would contradict the section that talks about the public utility service,” she said.
Romano reiterated that the only topic before the commission this evening is the appropriateness of the extension of the sewer.
“I keep going back to the simple facts in front of you tonight: we want to extend the sewer, we have the capacity, and it’s recommended to extend the sanitary sewer into this area. I think that’s the parameters you have to vote on tonight.”
“What I was looking at was your application which is sized for a higher use than what is currently permitted by the zoning. I’m referencing it strictly and solely for reviewing how the POCD talks about sewer extensions and the attempt to avoid extensions for the sole purpose of proceeding with changes in permitted uses. But please, Attorney Gelderman, if I’m incorrect, please so state that.”
Gelderman replied, “Melissa, you’re spot on.”
Commissioner Jill Warren followed up. “We’re supposed to be looking at the current use, and I don’t understand how we are allowed to look at a proposal that breaks down a proposed flow based on units that would not be allowed under current use. How does that affect our decision-making process?”
“It affects it to the extent that you think it is relevant,” said Gelderman. “The POCD says what it says and it is one of the most significant things to guide, but it’s not the only thing. If in fact, it’s an 8-30g proposal then current zoning limitations are sort of irrelevant.”
After moving through the rest of the agenda, the Commission circled back to deliberate on the topic and the relationship between this application and an eventual master plan for Cannondale.
Tomasetti kicked off the discussion by characterizing the 8-24 referral as, “This is the most vague, unclear thing. We’re just looking at this particular part of the development, which is expanding sewer, but we’re not looking at development. But then, why extend the sewer if not for the development?”
He lamented the lack of long-term planning for this area of Wilton. “It seems sort of natural to have development there, but we haven’t planned for orderly development,” he said. “Once again, we’re playing catch up to developers. I don’t think there is a great answer here.”
Commissioner Eric Fanwick painted a broader picture of the impact this decision could have. “Once we put the sewer there, all sorts of other regulations come into play that trump us, like affordable housing,” he said. “I absolutely think we need to master plan before we put in a sewer. We shouldn’t be rushing to do this just because we have an application in front of us.”
Rotini replied, “I don’t think we should be planning in order to avoid a statute. I think that’s the wrong way to go about things. When you fear things, you make decisions on an incorrect basis.”
“We need a master plan for this neighborhood,” Tomasetti said. “Based on everything in our POCD with respect to diversity of housing types and density, at some point, this area will be under pressure for development. Whether or not we decide to have a positive referral now, my sense is there are a lot of questions.”
Wrinn added that the master plan for Cannondale is already included in the capital budget. “This is something that is real and that is moving forward.”
Based on the 8-24 referral statute, P&Z is required to submit a report to the Water Pollution Control Authority within 35 days, either approving or rejecting the proposal. If P&Z fails to submit a report within the 35-day time period, the proposal will be presumed approved. If P&Z decides to issue a report disapproving of the proposal, the project can only go forward with a two-thirds override vote from the town legislature or public town meeting.
The Commissioners agreed to add 19 Cannon Rd. to the agenda of the next meeting of P&Z, scheduled for Monday, Mar. 28. A report will have to be issued by the end of that week in order to meet the state’s deadline.
Ahead of that meeting, letters from several town residents have been submitted and are posted on the commission’s website. With concerns ranging from environmental impacts on the nearby aquifer to traffic impacts along Cannon Rd., to the historic character of the area, the letters suggest that even at this early stage, the not-yet-proposed development has already caught the attention of neighbors in the Cannondale area, and beyond.