The Monday, Nov. 8 meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) clocked in at over four hours, during which time the commissioners voted to close public hearings on two large-scale and long-debated applications. Both of the projects—141 Danbury Road and the Connecticut Humane Society—involve multiple zoning actions.
Closing the hearings signals progress: the Commission will move on to debate whether or not to approve the two much-watched proposals, based on everything they’ve heard in several public hearing sessions. Monday evening’s meeting provided even more material to consider in an already complex situation.
141 Danbury Road
In the proposal for a 173-unit multi-family complex on a 4.2-acre property at the former site of the Melissa and Doug corporate office, the applicant is seeking a text amendment, zoning change, and special permit. All three topics were considered simultaneously.
Town Planner Michael Wrinn noted the update that the Inland Wetlands Commission voted to approve the project at a meeting on Oct. 28. Samuel Fuller, owner of the development, walked through the updated submission, which included options for an orthogonal roof terrace and a more coherent relationship between the building façade and the ground level garage.
The new façade would extend aluminum screening to shield the garage area from view, which Fuller noted is complicated by the flood plain regulations that affect the site. Chair Rick Tomasetti, who led the request that this option be considered, conceded, “I understand what I am pushing you to do is near impossible to do with flood plain regulation.”
The applicant agreed to have these two potential changes to the plan considered separately by P&Z in its deliberations about whether to approve the project and what conditions to put in place.
During the public comment period, two neighbors expressed their support for the project. Trish Caganello said, “I’ve known Sam Fuller for years, he grew up in the area and he cares about this area.”
Peter Hubbard noted that he drives past this site daily on his commute. “It would be big improvement to that section of Danbury Rd., and bring significant new tax revenue.”
Liz Craig, former chair of the Inland Wetlands Commission, expressed an opposing view. “I am shocked but not surprised that the current Inland Wetlands Commission approved this,” she said. “Buildings of this scale need to be considered more fully; it sounds like you’re already wrapping it up here, without much feedback from the public.”
Tomasetti objected to her characterization of the public process.
“We have held public hearings with this applicant, as well as an extensive pre-application period during which they engaged in a very transparent back and forth with the Commission. It is within a property owner’s right to ask for zoning changes under our current regulations and it is up to the Commission to decide whether those changes are appropriate. We’re doing what is required to have open, honest and transparent public hearings,” Tomasetti said.
In closing, the applicant’s attorney Sarah Feinberg noted that the project team first came before P&Z in February 2021, and appeared before the Commission five times after that, in addition to four public hearings at the Inland Wetlands Commission, and meetings with the Conservation Committee, Architectural Review Board, and Economic Development Committee, among other agencies. She also noted that the project would bring in new real estate taxes of $1.2 million per year, 10 times the revenue generated by the property’s prior use.
The commissioners voted unanimously to close the public hearing process.
Connecticut Humane Society
The Commission then moved on to discuss a series of applications related to the Connecticut Humane Society’s project to develop 863-875 Danbury Road into its new headquarters.
Tomasetti urged the applicant to remain brief if possible, in light of the extensive presentations already delivered at past meetings of P&Z, but noted, “Of course it is your right as an applicant to take the time you think you need.” The discussion dominated the meeting, extending to nearly three hours of testimony.
Jim Murphy, attorney for the applicant, began by noting that significant time would be dedicated to addressing noise complaints about the project. “We get the sense that either we’re not delivering the message that there is not going to be noise, or you’re not believing it. We want to nail this down.”
Kevin Peterson, Senior Acoustical Consultant at SH Acoustics, delivered an extensive presentation on noise as measured by decibel level. He noted that the quietest point on the property at mid-morning was measured at 59 decibels of ambient sound, largely generated by traffic along Danbury Rd. Although the town noise ordinance requires sound to be kept below 80 decibels, the applicant sought to ensure that noise from dogs barking on the property would not exceed the ambient sound level of the area.
“I want to be clear,” Peterson said. “This does not mean that a dog bark is inaudible. But it will fall within the ambient level of sound on the property.”
Commissioner Peter Shiue questioned that assertion. “Background noise is a lot different from acute noise. I don’t believe there will be a lot of continuous barking, but I can’t equate a dog barking randomly with a low, continuous drone; it’s completely different,” he said.
The first public comments came from Jennifer Donath and Holger Donath, owners of the property north of the site, who expressed frustration at the process and impact the project would have on their home.
Holger Donath pressed the Commission about why tax implications of the project were not part of the application. “What are the taxes collected from the property now and how much is Wilton giving up by converting it to a charitable group?” Murphy noted that tax information was not included in the application because it is not relevant to P&Z’s review. Upon learning that the figure was still unavailable and that P&Z does not seek additional information apart from the applicant’s required submissions, Mr. Donath left the conversation.
Jennifer Donath continued, identifying herself as an audiologist. “Fifty decibels is speaking level,” she said. “Eighty decibels is not okay—that’s shouting.”
A final public comment from resident Alena Murphy ignited charged discussion.
“How is it that the Conservation Commission, director of Environmental Affairs, director of Planning and Land Use, Inland Wetlands Commission, Planning and Zoning Commission, and private consultants all missed the fact that the property is completely within a Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) area?”
Commissioner Melissa-Jean Rotini stated that she found the framing of the question rude and urged the applicant to respond formally in writing.
Kate Throckmorton, landscape architect for the project, jumped in. “I can put this to bed quickly. These are generalized maps that highlight areas in a 500-foot radius where a species of concern has been found. In this circumstance, I did not interpret the map initially correctly. A Commissioner on Inland Wetlands urged us to check that, I did, and realized it was within the area.”
The species in question is the eastern box turtle, spotted in the area in 2009. The applicant submitted new direction from DEEP and an independent herpetology expert to the Inland Wetlands Commission as part of its review, after which the project received the Commission’s approval.
The commissioners again voted unanimously to close the public hearing.
Before adjourning, the commissioners discussed options for wrapping up consideration of these two matters prior to Dec. 1, when two seats on the Commission will turn over following the results of last week’s election.
At the suggestion of Rotini, P&Z will forgo or strictly limit consideration of new topics at the Nov. 22 meeting in order to properly deliberate on these major projects. Before closing the meeting, Tomasetti proposed scheduling a subsequent date prior to Dec. 1 in which P&Z can move forward with either approving or rejecting the two applications.