On Thursday, Sept. 21, the Greater Wilton Center Area Master Plan subcommittee held its final working meeting in the lengthy process to reform the zoning regulations that govern Wilton’s downtown. Alongside project consultants BFJ, the subcommittee hammered out final details of the new zoning overlays, which will soon be sent to the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) and presented to the greater public.
The biggest news out of the meeting was the group announcing tentative dates for each of those steps: P&Z is expected to receive a full presentation from the consultants on the master plan and regulatory changes next Thursday, Sept. 28. Should the Commission vote to advance the regulatory changes as expected, they would go to a public hearing, which would likely be held on Thursday, Oct. 19. After the hearing, P&Z would vote yes or no on enacting those new zoning overlays for both Wilton Center and nearby Danbury Rd.
The subcommittee scrutinized the drafts over the course of nearly four hours, addressing the use of the Oxford comma and ideal sentence structure, as well as substantive matters. Most notably, they came to a resolution on the topic of building height downtown, which had been a matter of debate throughout the process.
New (Conditional) Building Height Allowances and Public Space Requirements
The new zoning for Wilton Center will allow buildings along public streets to build up to four stories, with the fourth story occupying a smaller footprint that would be set back further from the street. Often likened to the structure of a wedding cake, this architectural technique allows greater light and air to reach ground level and reduces the visual impact of a building’s bulk from the pedestrian point of view.
The new regulations will allow P&Z to approve a fifth story as a height bonus, which would require developers to offer some kind of public benefit (such as a greater portion of affordable housing than otherwise required, the preservation of a historic structure, or meeting certain sustainability targets.) The subcommittee agreed to limit fifth stories to 25% of the square footage of the floor below and require an additional setback from the street.
One exception to this rule is what the group called “back buildings,” secondary buildings positioned further from the public street and behind street-facing buildings. These are possible in a handful of large lots like the one Kimco controls in Wilton Center. These back-buildings would be allowed, with approval from P&Z, to build a fifth story that occupies up to 50% of the square footage of the floor below.
The subcommittee also landed on a final decision about civic space requirements downtown. Sites larger than 1.5 acres will be required to set aside at least 10% of their lots for public amenities such as parks, courtyards, plazas, playgrounds, and squares. For smaller lots that fall under 1.5 acres, 5% of the site must be set aside for these uses.
Zooming further out, the zoning changes along Danbury Rd. will now be divided into three separate zones: East, West, and the Transit-Oriented Development area immediately surrounding the Wilton train station. Changes to these draft regulations were mainly grammatical. Frank Fish, founding principal of BFJ, promised the subcommittee that the final versions of these proposed zoning overlays would be available next week.
In both areas — Wilton Center itself and nearby Danbury Rd. — the existing zoning will remain in place for current building owners and any future developers who choose to forgo the new zoning regulations. The new regulations will exist as an overlay, a set of more progressive zoning rules available to projects that conform to certain town priorities, like promoting affordability and building sustainably.
P&Z Chair Rick Tomasetti, who also chaired the subcommittee through its nearly two-year-long process, closed the meeting by thanking each of his fellow members as well as First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice and Town Planner Michael Wrinn for the hours of work that went into the project.
“This is something that our community has not done to this extent probably since the regulations were written,” he said, noting that prior master plans did not lead to real reforms of the town’s zoning regulations. “This is a very comprehensive change for the better for our community. It will make us a more vibrant and attractive community in the future.”