At its July 13 meeting, Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) continued a discussion that began in June regarding the future of outdoor dining in Wilton. The commissioners hope to extend an executive order that Gov. Ned Lamont issued in May, making the special permit process easy for Connecticut restaurants to set up dining areas on sidewalks and parking areas during the COVID-19 public health crisis. It’s a topic they’ll continue discussing–and possibly vote on–at tonight’s (Monday, July 27) P&Z meeting at 7:15 p.m. via Zoom.

The commissioners have proposed text amendments to Wilton’s outdoor dining regulation that would allow restaurants to continue providing outdoor dining in three zones–Wilton Center, Design Retail Business, and General Business–until the “end of the dining season,” or Dec. 1, 2020.

Several commissioners have expressed support of Wilton restaurants being able to make use of outdoor dining spaces, suggesting it added a livelier ambiance to the town and was effectively an advertisement for visiting Wilton.

Commissioners discussed the language of the amendments, whether it would be restricted to restaurants that had been issued permits prior to the meeting on July 13, in addition to allowing establishments to add heaters or other additions that would make outdoor dining feasible throughout the fall. Town Planner and Director of Land Use Michael Wrinn said that restaurants would need to apply for permits for any changes they want to make since the original approval, but the text amendment should not prohibit such changes.

There was also confusion among the commissioners surrounding language that stated, “the use shall at all times continue to be used in accordance with all Executive Orders currently in place or as revised in the future.” However, Wrinn explained that the extended timeline was proposed in order to provide support for restaurants that have made the investment to provide outdoor dining–for example, adding tents and additional furniture–even if the government’s order on outdoor dining is rescinded and outdoor dining goes away.

Marly’s Bar and Bistro
Marly’s Bar and Bistro

Commissioners also agreed that the intent of the amendment is to explain that the restaurants will not get nonconforming rights forever, although they determined the language was confusing.

While there were no public comments during the meeting, an email was read from Marly’s Bar and Bistro owners, who noted that they were grateful for the commission’s work to extend the temporary outdoor dining permit, Wrinn said.

The public hearing for the text amendments has been continued to tonight’s regular meeting (July 27) and the language will be tweaked for clarity.

Master Planning–Danbury Rd. Corridor

During the first meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission’s Master Planning/Zoning Subcommittee, members discussed what their first area of focus should be along the Danbury Road Corridor, how to begin the examination, and what steps need to be taken. After several minutes to consider several options, members determined that it was more beneficial to choose where to begin instead of selecting both a starting point and an endpoint. decided on the first area of focus. They chose to begin…at the beginning, at the Norwalk border, and will start by looking at town zoning and regulations from the Gateway Shopping Center and work their way up Danbury Road.

This decision was made in light of the subcommittee’s goal of increasing the cohesiveness of the entire corridor, and, according to Vice-Chair Melissa Rotini, working on it in chunks would not achieve that goal. Instead, they would take a “big picture” view of the overall corridor and eventually determine a natural stopping point through the process.

According to the meeting minutes, “Commissioners highlight[ed] their desire to incorporate the river and thus find a way to build in the flood plain, to create better streetscapes, revamp parking, provide appropriate incentives/trade-offs to developers, consider affordable and diverse housing options as well as environmental and historical aspects, and various other considerations in an effort to unlock development potential, particularly in the entry area into the Town.”

Chairman Rick Tomasetti will develop a vision statement/concept to present to the subcommittee for review at the next meeting.

Commissioners also debated how best to involve experts and other town commissions in order to make informed decisions throughout the process. The members agreed that input from the Architectural Review Board, Social Services Department, Historic District & Historic Property Commission, Inland Wetlands Commission, and Conservation Commission would be necessary, although Commissioner Christopher Pagliaro vocalized his reticence due to past commissions saying no to various projects.

“I feel that this town has been chained to the fence for three decades or more and it’s why we’re behind our neighbors. It’s why our property values are what they are. We need to put some life and organization into this community,” he said. “We need to think outside the box and we need to resolve our issues because we need to move forward into the 21st century. You can’t get better by saying no to everything.”

As a response, the subcommittee members determined that while other town commissions would be asked to advise them and voice recommendations and concerns, they will not be given the opportunity to say yes or no to the subcommittee’s decisions. Instead, the subcommittee will solicit input and feedback from town departments and other commissions’ liaisons, who will attend meetings throughout the process.

The first department that the P&Z subcommittee will meet with will likely be the Social Services Department in order to determine what residents need the most and how the rezoning of Danbury Road can facilitate that.

“This is not just about Planning & Zoning wanting to do something and wanting to unblock development and all that. This is about challenging us as the citizens of the town to say, look, we’re taking a step back,” Tomasetti said. “We’ve all recognized that it’s crystal clear in our past election, in the POCD process, that we have challenges that we need to address and we need to do it in a good, orderly, well-thought-out process that arrives at a better community, so we have to do that, and we need all the stakeholders to come.”

The subcommittee’s next meeting will be held via Zoom on Wednesday, Aug. 19 at 7:15 p.m.