P&Z’s Active Meeting — Outdoor Dining, Parking Regulations, Retail vs. Showroom for Glengate and Humane Soc. Signs

Despite a lively — and at times, combative — discussion over one project in particular, the Planning and Zoning Commission made it through an extensive agenda during its Monday evening, Mar. 28 meeting. The commissioners and Town Planner Michael Wrinn tackled a diverse set of topics from retail signage to state regulations to the technical definition of an office. One project was notably missing from the agenda, however: a controversial bid to extend a public sewer in Cannondale was withdrawn just hours before its public hearing would have taken place.

The Commission also held public hearings on three pieces of state law, but received little to no input from the public.

Public Act 21-29: Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) & Parking Regulations

The Commission invited public comment on two new state regulations that propose to override Wilton’s current zoning rules on parking requirements and ADUs. The town has the option to opt-out of these new regulations before the end of this year; otherwise, they would take effect in 2023. In order to opt-out, both P&Z and the Board of Selectmen would need to act together.

Prior to P&Z’s initial discussion of these regulations in February, Wrinn distributed a PowerPoint presentation (available online for the public), comparing recently passed Connecticut state regulations against Wilton’s corresponding existing land-use regulations.

The new parking regulations would limit required parking spaces for new development to one space for one-bedroom and studio units, and a maximum of two spaces for any units with two or more bedrooms. The new ADU regulations would limit the size of future ADUs to 1,000 square feet and would also allow them to be built on non-conforming lots, many of which are older and sit on smaller lots than Wilton’s typical 2-acre standard.

Tackling the parking regulation first, P&Z Chair Rick Tomasetti called the regulation “a power grab from the state,” and noted that his counterparts in Greenwich, Westport, New Canaan, Darien, Ridgefield, and Weston “are all looking to opt-out.”

“It may be well-intentioned but there is a lot of this coming down from the state, trying to force local communities to do certain things,” he said. “It’s a simple vote from me: we should be collecting data and making decisions based on what we, as a local community, think is right for the town.”

The strictness of the regulation seemed to be a particular sticking point. The new rules would not allow towns to require additional parking under any circumstances — eliminating, for instance, any requirements that parking be provided for visitors. This inflexibility could be particularly problematic for a town like Wilton that does not have municipal parking available to help manage spillover.

“There’s definitely a conversation to be had here, but I believe we are ahead of that conversation. We don’t need you,” said commissioner Christopher Pagliaro, referring to the state. “We’re ahead of you, in a way that is more appropriate to Wilton.”

The only public comment was contributed by Barbara Geddis, who sits on P&Z’s Wilton Center Master Plan Subcommittee. She urged the Commission to opt-out of the state regulations, citing the ongoing master plan process, the need for localized data on parking usage, and the importance of retaining flexibility.

The state ADU regulations also received just one public comment, from Sara Curtis who asked for clarity on whether Wilton’s existing regulations could be revisited, in the event that the town opts out of the new state rules.

“Opting out gives us the flexibility but what I wonder is if we wanted to take a look at the units that are being built [under current town regulations] and take a close look at the size and scale of the units, could we do that?” she asked. “There was quite a lot of discussion about this three years ago and I thought we had limited the maximum size of ADUs.”

Tomasetti explained that any resident or the Commission itself can bring a text amendment up for discussion. However, Wrinn also noted, “We haven’t seen a significant number of large ADUs.”

Commissioner Florence Johnson wondered whether existing rules were “a little too stringent” on non-conforming properties with barns and other outbuildings. She also asked for clarity on the status of certain ADUs in town, particularly whether they have been officially approved or not.

With no further comments, the public hearing on the proposed state parking regulations was closed and the Commission requested from Wrinn a draft resolution opting out, to be voted on at the next regular meeting. The public hearing on ADUs was left open pending additional information requested by Johnson regarding the current regulations.

Outdoor Dining

Wrinn delivered the news that late last week, Gov. Ned Lamont signed a bill extending the right of restaurants to offer outdoor dining for 13 months. First introduced at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the order would have expired this Thursday, Mar. 31 without the extension, an issue P&Z expressed concern over at the previous meeting.

Wrinn explained that the new order allows any restaurants currently offering outdoor dining to reapply for a new permit. “With this weather, I think we have a week or two before anyone is sitting outside anyway.”

Connecticut Humane Society

The first of two site development plans on the docket for the evening was an application for signage and lighting from the Connecticut Humane Society for its planned new headquarters at 863-875 Danbury Rd., which was approved by P&Z last November.

After running through a series of timed, motion-activated emergency lighting elements and a signage package that had received approval from the Architectural Review Board (ARB), representatives from Amenta Emma Architects shared elevation drawings of rooftop mechanicals and proposed screening. Scaled for the line of sight of a 5’6” person, the rendering depicted a viewshed in which, more often than not, the mechanicals were hidden entirely.

The site development plan package was well received by the Commission, with Tomasetti saying, “Good application. I don’t find anything objectionable here.”

The Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the package.

Glengate Company

Rendering of the front display window Glengate is hoping to install. (photo: Town of Wilton P&Z application)

The most charged discussion of the evening concerned plans by Glengate, a Wilton-based landscape and pool design company, to move into the current Bankwell space at 47 Old Ridgefield Rd. Glengate proposes to convert the building on the corner of Hubbard Rd. into a showroom and office space, allowing it to expand its burgeoning retail business. After a warm reception at ARB earlier this month, and several seemingly productive conversations with Planning & Zoning Department staff, the applicant’s attorney Jim Murphy seemed caught off guard by the tone and tenor of the evening’s conversation.

“This whole thing is hogwash,” said Pagliario, early on in Murphy’s presentation. “This isn’t a store, it’s a glorified decorator’s office. You’re disguising it as retail to try to occupy this floor.” Wilton Center regulations discourage office uses on the ground floor, prioritizing street-level retail as a way to encourage pedestrian traffic and a village feel.

The conversation became heated, as Pagliaro and Murphy traded comments debating the distinction between retail businesses and design showrooms. Wrinn read from town regulations for the official definition of an office and the exact wording of a clause that allowed existing non-conforming uses to be grandfathered in following a 1998 zoning change.

“Glengate is a first-class company and I’m always proud to have you as part of our community,” Pagliaro said, speaking directly to the company’s owner Jordan “Jordy” Scott. “We’ve worked on the same properties. But unless that couch [referring to a rendering] is for sale, you’re not selling me that this is retail.”

With Scott himself brought into the discussion, however, tempers soon cooled. When asked by commissioner Ken Hoffman whether the location would welcome walk-ins or be strictly by appointment, Scott quickly allayed concerns.

“I am envisioning it as retail,” he explained. “I see a mom and dad and kids in Wilton Center deciding to just stop in and interact with us.” He added that ARB encouraged him to improve the plantings outside by creating interactive educational gardens, a project that would reflect the landscaping philosophy of the company in addition to inviting foot traffic.

Murphy took the opportunity to run through a more extensive presentation than originally planned. This longer presentation, which included extensive interior renderings and explanations of products offerings had been delivered to P&Z staff earlier. The energy of the meeting quickly shifted as even the most skeptical commissioners seemed persuaded by Scott’s responses and the details of the showroom plans.

“What you’re showing here is making a good argument that this is retail,” Pagliaro acknowledged.

“Our community needs better definitions of showroom versus retail versus office, but we don’t have that yet,” Tomasetti said. “The owner made a compelling argument. I think it’s a great story and to the extent that it complies with our regulations, I think we should cheer it on.”

“Better to have this here than another bank or a realtor,” he added. “I could vote for this.”

Johnson said of the project. “I believe this is a business that will draw people into Wilton from other towns, people who know the reputation of this company,” she said.

The commissioners then conducted an informal straw poll, expressing unofficial but unanimous support for Glengate’s site development plan. Wrinn will prepare a resolution to be voted on at the next P&Z meeting.

Tomasetti thanked Scott for his time. “I appreciate your patience with this lively discussion,” he said. “We’re trying to get it right — that’s our purpose here.”

Next Steps

On Thursday of this week (Mar. 31) the Planning & Zoning Commission and consultants from BFJ Planning, Urbanomics, and RGR Landscape will hold a public hearing on the Wilton Center Master Plan. The hearing will be held on zoom beginning at 7:00 PM and all residents of Wilton are encouraged to attend. According to a microsite for the project, a microsite for the project hosted on P&Z’s website, the meeting will include “an interactive presentation, followed by a town hall-style Q&A session, to shape the vision, objectives, and priorities” for the master plan.

The next regular meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission will be held on Monday, Apr. 11 and will include discussion of several new applications: a special permit for a new Indian restaurant, Athithi, to operate at the Gateway Shopping Center; a special permit for Bone and Bark Inn, a dog boarding facility, to operate at the site of the former ABC House; and a proposal for a 30-unit, 2.5 story multifamily development at 12 Godfrey Place.