Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) held its first meeting of 2023 on Monday, Jan. 9, with several high-profile agenda items. Among them were a special permit application for a new cafe that hit the P&Z sweet spot in just one meeting; and, in contrast, a second, more complicated special permit application for a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) meeting house that, despite having gone through multiple reviews since last June, failed to make commissioners happy.
Long Road to Get Here
Wilton first heard about the LDS Church’s interest in November 2018 when church officials signed contracts to buy land at 241 Danbury Rd. across from Town Hall. Architects representing the Church filed an application with Wilton’s land use department in June 2022 and began seeking town approval in front of Wilton’s Architecture Review Board (ARB).
Over the course of three meetings, ARB members offered what GMW reporter Meaghan Baron said at the time was “from an aesthetic standpoint, …a long list of suggestions for the design of the building.”
After two rounds of incorporating board member feedback and making significant changes, the third ARB meeting was the charm for the LDS architects. ARB member Kevin Quinlan told them, “You’ve done a wonderful job with this version… the building looks great,” a sentiment all ARB members echoed.
Although it doesn’t have regulatory oversight, the ARB advises P&Z. In this case, when P&Z heard the application for the first time at a public hearing on Oct. 24, ARB’s advice didn’t pass muster. Instead, P&Z commissioners contradicted several changes recommended by the ARB and expressed concerns, focusing attention on the church’s windows as well as building materials and other design elements.
The applicant was invited back to continue the hearing on Nov. 14 but asked for a continuance, postponing it to Nov. 28; the applicant postponed two more times until finally appearing again on Jan. 9.
“Custom Project” to Match Local New England Style
Architects Robin Benning and Robert Berkheim began the Jan. 9 meeting by presenting their designs again. They addressed what they believed were the commissioners’ concerns, specifying their attempts to integrate Colonial design and “match the local New England style.”
Benning addressed prior concerns Commissioner Chris Pagliaro had about the building’s windows. “One of the things that we really wanted to work on was, one commissioner, in particular, was very concerned about the windows and making sure that the windows looked authentic.”
The architects said that while they typically design windows for LDS meeting houses with dark double-glazed glass and muntins in between the two window panes, they acceded to requests from P&Z for more authentic-looking windows. [Editor’s note: muntins are the traditional cross pieces that separate the window glass into smaller panes. During the meeting, the muntins were occasionally referred to as mullions, which are vertical posts separating a window.]
“For your pleasure, we have selected a window manufacturer, it is a vinyl window; however, it has a raised mullion on both inside and outside of the glass that will make it look authentic and like a true divided light wood frame window. There’s been a lot of talk about this particular window and I’m very hopeful that when you look at this style, you’ll say that that is enough of the representation you are looking for,” Benning said.
While the glass itself would have a finish that would obscure seeing into the meeting house, which is standard for the LDS Church, Benning said the architects refrained from tinting the windows dark. “We’re used to doing a lot of those heavy tints in Arizona, but I think in Connecticut we probably won’t be be doing that.”
Benning carefully explained some of the typical design features in a Mormon meeting house and how it differs from an LDS temple. Answering a point raised by P&Z Acting Chair Melissa-Jean Rotini, he explained that the front relief on the building side facing Danbury Rd. is a recognizable characteristic of meeting houses and a place that does not have windows.
“That front elevation is kind of iconic for members of the church of Latter-Day Saints. A lot of the buildings have that style going on. One of the things we were charged through as a design team was to try to make this identifiable to members and to also kind of fall in line,” Benning said.
Rotini had explained she thought that the relief looked like boarded-up windows rather than intentional design. But she didn’t want to interfere with something critical to members of the LDS Church.
“I’m not against your relief. I’m not against you getting your iconic look. I have no issue with that. Obviously, you need that because that’s what people expect and you want your people to be able to find it, obviously,” Rotini said, adding, “If you feel you need them this way to get accomplish your objective for your members. I’ll accept that as the answer.”
Benning also said the team had followed the commission’s feedback on landscaping design, specifically incorporating more native plants and implementing better storm drainage. This, too, was an area where the applicant deviated from standard Church designs in favor of P&Z feedback.
“The church typically has a standard planting schedule for the particular areas where they’re located and we’ve substantially deviated on this project from those requirements. So we heard your concern last time, and, I just want you to know that we have really pushed the limits of our client here on going to native plants and materials that are not customary for the church. So, I just wanted to make that point to you that we did hear you and we made changes, even outside of our normal boundaries, we stretched,” he said.
Benning pointed out that he believed the architecture team had done a good job balancing the concerns of the commissioners with the requirements of the team’s own clients, the LDS Church officials.
“This is a project that is unusual for the church. This team and our client in Salt Lake as well, we’ve all worked together to provide something that’s unique to this particular area. We work all across the country on these projects and I need you to know that this is a very custom project that is designed for your community,” he said.
LDS Meeting House: “Frustrating when applicants don’t listen and incorporate our concerns.”
Pagliaro was still unsatisfied and said the design presented was nothing like the Colonial examples. He criticized materials used in the design as well as the structure’s overall appearance.
“When you show me colonial design inspiration and then… the building you’re doing here… It’s like being inspired by dogs and then presenting cats to me because this building looks nothing like your inspirational photos,” he said, adding, “But that’s your choice and you’ve been through our Architectural Review [Board] and we are where we are with it.”
Pagliaro questioned why the team ignored his chief complaint about the window size. He didn’t respond favorably when Benning said the Church did not want to change the window size.
“The client and the budget and the pushing doesn’t inspire me to back off, to be honest. We see a lot of applications, a lot of applicants spend money that they might not have planned on spending in order to satisfy something under a special permit and an approval that is necessary. So I really don’t like hearing that to be honest,” Pagliaro said.
“This is a building, it’s voluntary. You’re coming to us and we are in Wilton, Connecticut. We’re not in Mesa, Arizona or El Paso, Texas. This is our community and the reason we exist here is to try to enhance it, preserve and protect it. And the aesthetic is part of that conversation. So your client needs to get on board with where they’re building this building and I really don’t like hearing about what they get pushed to do,” he added.
But rather than keep the public hearing open or continue discussions about other design elements and possible additional changes, the architects said their client, the LDS Church, had no desire to continue a back and forth, and wanted to get a decision with the plans as presented after several rounds of changes already.
“Well, we’re sort of at a loggerhead, and I think the bottom line is we’ve made significant revisions to the site and to the building. … at this point, our client has asked us to please take this forward as an up or down decision,” Benning said.
Many of the commissioners had hoped for further discussion and potential compromise with the applicant that might have borne fruit. But the LDS Church’s decision to not make changes commissioners had requested in October, and to close the hearing and ask for a vote took a toll.
“They knew they were facing an architectural conversation. They took a long time to come back to us with it. I don’t think that conversation was over. They should have been prepared to have an ongoing conversation where they either could have said, ‘We’ll go back to one color brick and we’ll go back to our original divided light system.’ And I would’ve left it at that. But we were bullied into this, to be honest, with make a decision tonight, end the hearing tonight. I don’t like the response. That sets a bad precedent for conversations we have with applicants. And I will not vote in favor of this application,” Pagliaro said.
He also pointed out that part of the Wilton Center Master Plan review process currently underway involves creating design standards — standards the meeting house design might conceivably not meet.
Several other commissioners said they agreed with Pagliaro’s points. Rotini and Commissioners Ken Hoffman and Jill Warren said they wanted to make clear that the changes sought by the Commisison were not elements related to religious practice.
“It’s just, just frustrating when applicants listen to our concerns and just don’t incorporate them. And I think this should be reiterated yet again, I don’t think it can be reiterated enough: none of us has an issue with the religious aspect or their religious standards at all. It’s really just that they haven’t listened to our concerns and they’re not incorporating them,” Warren said.
The commissioners decided to take advantage of the 65 days they have to deliberate and opted to continue their conversation at their next meeting.
They requested Land Use Director and Town Planner Michael Wrinn look into what specific grounds they have to deny the application, in order to make sure they don’t violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which protects houses of worship and religious institutions from “undue burdens” that may be imposed by land use regulations.