In a move known as an 8-24 referral, Wilton’s Board of Selectmen (BOS) recently referred a long-range plan for improvements at Schenck’s Island to the Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission for members to review and comment. But the BOS may not have gotten the response it expected from P&Z commissioners.
The BOS is ready to proceed with its improvement plan, but is required under the Connecticut General Statutes to make the referral to P&Z for any improvement projects in town-owned parks or playgrounds.
The members of the P&Z took up the referral at Monday night’s (June 28) meeting, sparking discussion — and some doubts — about the plan’s potential to serve as a meaningful “draw” or “amenity” to residents, as hoped.
The Schenck’s Island Master Plan, approved by the BOS earlier this year, was the culmination of three years of effort by the Schenck’s Island/Merwin Meadows (SIMM) Committee and engineering/landscape consultants Milone and MacBroom, along with input from residents during multiple public meetings held in 2019.
The multi-phase plan established priorities for Year 1 and Year 2-3. Those priorities were reviewed by Environmental Affairs Director Mike Conklin during Monday night’s P&Z meeting, and include (as seen in the rendering above):
- “Great lawn” for picnics and community events (area 1)
- An acoustic amphitheater (area 2), i.e., a performance stage or “band shell”
- Improved parking lot and park entry (area 3): including improved lighting, entry signage and parking for 18 cars
- Nature-themed, free-play area (area 4)
- Meadow observation tower (area 5): envisioned as a roofed platform for bird-watching, educational gatherings or beautiful views
- River Road gateway (area 6)
- Managed meadow area and trails (area 7)
- River restoration plantings and river access (area 8): with involvement by Trout Unlimited “to enhance ecology, habitat and health of the stream channel”
Conklin emphasized that the plan was a great balancing act between the desire to attract people with gathering spaces or activities while also preserving and enhancing the natural areas and habitats. The plan was heavily constrained by the reality that much of the property is a floodway, or floodplain, of the Norwalk River, making it less ideal for structures, including even fencing.
The plan was also constrained by budget. Conklin acknowledged that the budget for all the planned improvements was $1 million. Some of the improvements would be funded through the town budget, but others — namely the amphitheater — would only be made possible at some point through private funding.
P&Z Commission chair Rick Tomasetti began his comments with a concern about how the Schenck’s Island plan will fit into the town’s overall Master Plan, which specifically addresses development in Wilton Center. Schenck’s Island would be an obvious natural asset in any strategic planning for Wilton Center.
“I’m just a little concerned that this is a piece of the area of our master plan. I want to make sure that we’re not going to step on our own toes here… It’s obviously an area that planners would key in on and say, ‘Oh, you could do something very interesting here.’ I don’t want to preclude other uses that maybe we haven’t all thought of,” Tomasetti said.
Commissioner Eric Fanwick, who was the P&Z representative on the SIMM Committee beginning in May 2018, pointed out that the BOS established the SIMM Committee to begin planning for the Schenck’s Island improvements before the town began its Plan of Conservation and Development.
“We started this [three or] four years ago before our POCD process was underway. There wasn’t even talk about the [town’s] Master Plan,” said Fanwick, adding that the Schenck’s Island plan could certainly be integrated into the larger Master Plan.
“It really is a very well thought out plan,” he emphasized.
Tomasetti differed in his assessment, and suggested the town might be missing an opportunity to think bigger.
“It’s a reactionary plan, and it’s not very visionary,” he said. “Personally, I’m not all that excited about this. I appreciate all the hard work, but I don’t find it very creative and I don’t find it very inventive.”
Tomasetti expressed his belief that a lack of vision, particularly when it comes to town amenities, has hindered Wilton in the past.
“If you’ve listened to any of our conversations we’ve had about Master Planning or any of the POCD conversations, it’s been a common theme about being visionary. It’s a common theme about how as a community, we haven’t put in the requisite resources for amenities.”
Later in the discussion, Tomasetti softened his comments somewhat, and re-focused on his key conclusion: “We need to have a better balance for amenities in our community. That’s really the key here,” he said.
Similarly, vice chair Melissa-Jean Rotini questioned whether the improvements were sufficient to draw in new visitors, other than the avid bird-watchers and fishing enthusiasts who already enjoy the area. Though she felt the amphitheater would attract people for specific events, Rotini said, “I’m just not seeing [a benefit] on a daily basis… I thought we were going to be getting something that was a little more of a draw to the center of town, to expand on the population that’s already coming.”
Rotini clarified that she was not suggesting a trade-off on conservation efforts. “The uses that are being preserved are great. I think those are important. And yes, those do draw people in, but I think those people are already using [Schenck’s Island],” she said.
Comments from the P&Z meeting will go back to the BOS for their consideration.
CORRECTION: P&Z Commissioner Eric Fanwick was appointed as the P&Z member representative on the SIMM Committee after he was elected to the Commission, not prior to joining to P&Z Commission.