Among other business at the Monday, Dec. 5 Board of Selectmen meeting, the selectmen heard an update from Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Rick Tomasetti on the Greater Wilton Center Master Planning process.
Master Plan Update
“We’re making great progress,” Tomasetti told the board.
In fact, he said, the process is nearing completion. The goal is to bring the plan to the Commission by the end of the year, and present it to the public in January, followed by the completion of new, form-based zoning code in February.
Tomasetti has been satisfied with the public input received in the process, noting that the 2019 Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) successfully laid the groundwork for a productive Master Planning process.
Town Planner Michael Wrinn says residents can expect to see an emphasis on “the public realm” in Wilton Center, as a more walkable, livable and connected environment.
“We’re not changing the underlying zoning. We’re adding some incentives for an overlay district,” Tomasetti emphasized.
Tomasetti said he envisions the output from the planning process will be “much more comprehensive and thought out” than simple building height and setback regulations, resulting in a more vibrant and better-designed environment.
“What Happens to Us?”
In an email to Tomasetti in advance of the meeting, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice alerted him to questions she planned to raise about the potential impact of draft legislation at the state level.
“The CT Chapter of the American Planners Association released their 2023 legislative priorities, which included support for Desegregate [CT]‘s Work Live Ride Act 2023, which they noted includes, among others, financial assistance to municipalities that commit to create a transit-oriented community (TOC) district and removes state funding for communities that don’t commit to do so,” Vanderslice wrote. [UPDATE: At the Dec. 20 Board of Selectmen meeting, Vanderslice clarified that the legislative priorities of the CT Chapter of the American Planners Association were only preliminary, and had not yet been adopted by the association membership.]
She also shared a draft map prepared by Town staff to roughly depict the half-mile radius around the Wilton Center train station, as potential legislation might define a Wilton TOC. Density within a TOC could be as high as 15 housing units per one acre.
Vanderslice emphasized that the map was illustrative and “simply to provide context,” but noted a full build-out of thousands of housing units within the radius would be far from realistic.
“We’re not implying that, if this passes, that 70% of this is all going to be developed to the maximum that could be allowed. That would be kind of obscene. That would be 350 acres times 15 units to an acre. That’s never going to happen in Wilton,” Vanderslice said, noting that would nearly double Wilton’s total housing units.
Vanderslice seems concerned that TOC legislation, if passed, would supersede the Town’s ability to maximize the investment in the Wilton Center Master Plan.
“Obviously when you look at this, it doesn’t line up with the area you’ve been working on,” Vanderslice told Tomasetti. “This is on the horizon. I’m just wondering, what happens to us? How does this match up with the [Master Planning] work we’re doing?”
“Look, we don’t know what would be passed,” Tomasetti replied. “They’ve been talking about a lot of this stuff for a while.”
He said transit-oriented development (as defined in previous legislative drafts) “doesn’t really work” in a community like Wilton.
“These types of regulations don’t consider a whole host of other things. There’s no one-size-fits-all. This is not downtown Stamford or downtown New Haven,” Tomasetti said. “It just doesn’t work [in Wilton.]”
“I urge everyone to talk to their representatives to explain why this process doesn’t work,” he continued. “You can’t just put a pin on a map and say ‘here you go.’ You have rivers and wetlands and train tracks. It’s easy to draw the circle but it doesn’t work in reality.”
“Wilton could have a bit more density,” Tomasetti noted. “But a bit more density versus half a mile from Wilton’s train station are two completely different things.”
Turning the discussion back to the Master Plan, Tomasetti emphasized that higher density is not the Town’s sole priority.
“We’re not just saying we want more density… we’re talking about incentivizing affordability, historic preservation, a better-built environment, higher design standards, the sustainability aspect… There are other aspects of people’s daily lives that they want improved with new development.”
More BOS News
- Town Administrator Matt Knickerbocker discussed updates to Wilton’s Employee Handbook. A final draft of the handbook has been posted on the Town website. The board voted unanimously to approve the updates as presented.
- Knickerbocker also presented bids for the budgeted purchase of a new catch basin vacuum truck for Wilton’s Dept. of Public Works. Two bids for the combination jet/vacuum sewer cleaner were posted on the Town website: one for $529,358 and another for $498,651 . Knickerbocker recommended the latter, for having all of the desired features and being within budget. The board unanimously approved the bid.
- The selectmen approved their 2023 regular meeting calendar along with important milestone dates for the FY2024 budget planning process. GOOD Morning Wilton is reporting on key BOS and BOE budget timelines in a separate story today.
- The selectmen also unanimously approved the following appointments:
- Tax Collector: Jessica Baldwin (promotion from Acting Tax Collector)
- Blight Prevention Officer: Mark Lawrence
- Investment Committee: Richard Nichol (reappointed, term ending Nov. 30, 2024)
- Economic Development Commission: Alison Smith (reappointed, term ending June 30, 2024)
- Trustee for the retirement plan for employees of the Town of Wilton: Ruth DeLuca
- Inland Wetlands Commission: Frank Simone (term ending 11/30/24)
It should be noted that the appointment of Simone, who recently termed out after 10 years of service on the Conservation Commission, was an unusual step by the selectmen. Typically, appointments are made by the selectmen after candidates have applied through one of the Town Committees (Republican or Democratic).
In light of Simone’s considerable experience serving the Town, Vanderslice brought a motion to approve his appointment to the Inland Wetlands Commission (IWC) without going through the usual application process.
Given the difficulty of filling numerous positions on Wilton’s various boards and commissions, Vanderslice is advocating for “an additional pathway” to approve candidates if they are recommended by a member of the Board of Selectmen, in the same manner that she made the motion for the BOS to consider Simone for the vacant IWC position.
While the selectmen seemed to agree conceptually with Vanderslice’s goal of providing another avenue in which to find candidates, at least one of the selectmen, Bas Nabulsi, felt the board ought to have some clearer guidelines or policies for appointments made using the new pathway. Vanderslice agreed to draft some language to address that.
[Editor’s Note: This story was updated with Lynne Vanderslice’s comment about the number of potential new housing units and to clarify she was referring to thousands, not “hundreds” of units.]
I don’t think 15 units per acre in this very small circle is particularly “obscene” – that is not exactly high density by normal standards, it only seems obscene compared to the 0.5 units per acre most of Wilton is inexplicably zoned for.
Not everybody in that circle would care to sell, not every lot would prove to be suitable for higher density development, but getting an extra 100 or 200 units of medium density housing within walking distance of the train station would be a massive boon for our town and for Wilton Center businesses. Not to mention that it bolsters the case for Danbury branch electrification.
At any rate, it doesn’t sound like it would be forcing anything on us, merely denying us state assistance if we continue to be so fanatically anti-development. Which seems fair; if we’re going to refuse to do our part in addressing Connecticut’s housing shortage then we ought to be made to pay for that privilege.
Michael, how do you define high density “by normal standards”? The Town doesn’t have the services to suddenly support over 10,000 people in Wilton Center (2 people per unit times 15 times 350 acres) as might a city with historical high density patterns such as Stamford, Bridgeport, etc. Also, TOD works well if there’s existing demand to use public transit, and if anything the ridership numbers haven’t recovered post-COVID. There’s talk about Metro North raising rates to make up the shortfall.
I’m all for exploring well-designed options for higher density living by multiple age groups in the Town Center, but I don’t want to see the center turn into a bedroom community for New York. Take a look at Washington Village in SONO. That’s a 237 unit public housing project completed in 2021 within walking distance of the South Norwalk Train Station. It’s a very urban project. Do you see that happening in Wilton Center? Do you think, as designed, the buildings are welcoming to community? Really, I’m serious. Take the train down to SONO, or drive your car to the corner of Raymond and Day Streets and walk around. The park that’s there is pre-existing before the development but look at the heights of the buildings and how close they are to the road and imagine that being built in Wilton Center.
That aside, I’m really looking forward to seeing the results of the Town Center Masterplan!
Well first of all, 350 acres was 70% of the entire circle, but there’s only 283 acres of private residential land within that circle and obviously an awful lot of that would not be practical for more dense construction (too hilly, wetlands, no good way to put in a sewer/septic, etc), not to mention that it would likely take a decade or longer for a significant % of that real estate to turn over.
Also, 15 units per acre is not remotely the density of Washington Village (which I am indeed familiar with) – it’s townhouse territory, not tall boxy apartment buildings. There’s a nice visual guide to units per acre at https://mrsc.org/Home/Stay-Informed/MRSC-Insight/April-2017/Visualizing-Compatible-Density.aspx that you might want to take a look at.
But even if I stipulate to half your original estimate – 5000 new residents – and to 30-resident-per-acre 3- or 4- story apartments rather than townhouses, I still don’t think this would be a bad thing for Wilton. That density of housing is not at all incompatible with Wilton Center architecture-wise, and while 5000 residents dumped on our town all at once would be a disaster, 5000 moving in over the next decade or so would inject new life + growth into a town that badly needs it.
Great points Michael – the TOD sounds drastic at first, but the illustration shows that 15 units per acres fits pretty well in the Townhouse/small suburban apartment style, and you are correct to point out that it will not happen all at once or to the maximum extent.
What is necessary for Connecticut and demanded by the state is clear – more housing, and a lot of it. Wilton needs to take the initiative and scale up its stock in a smooth, thoughtful way. If we try to stay stuck where we are, we will end up having to scale quickly and messily in a way that will be much more painful.
I’m not sure how you equate 4-6 story apartment buildings as townhomes, but I will reciprocate with my own link here, if your recollection is a little fuzzy: https://email@example.com,-73.4169753,3a,75y,100.22h,95.36t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1slMVMlJ5yjYGmzAR0O2ZotA!2e0!6shttps:%2F%2Fstreetviewpixels-pa.googleapis.com%2Fv1%2Fthumbnail%3Fpanoid%3DlMVMlJ5yjYGmzAR0O2ZotA%26cb_client%3Dmaps_sv.tactile.gps%26w%3D203%26h%3D100%26yaw%3D45.595345%26pitch%3D0%26thumbfov%3D100!7i16384!8i8192
Building on hills, on or near wetlands and floodplains and installing sewer lines is practical in every sense of the word, even if it isn’t cheap, but it is doable once you get over the regulatory hurdles. You would not be installing septic systems on units of land less than 1/4 of an acre or where those units have higher occupancies than can support those systems. So, it will be all sewer, and provided that the sanitation systems down in Norwalk have the capacity for thousands of new residents up in Wilton, that influx of residents will not only come with a hefty price tag, but also take closer to 30 years to get that up to that number unless Wilton rezones that half mile radius. And by that time, we might have another problem with climate change and sea level rise. The water treatment plant in Norwalk is just barely above current sea level. We may, in the future, have to consider building a sanitation facility farther inland, such as at the Wilton Transfer Station, and then reroute all the effluent over there, probably with pumps. You can, of course, treat effluent on site, inside a building with blackwater and greywater recycling systems, but we’ll have to rewrite the local health code to make that work, with regular inspections.
That aside, projects like Washington Village are going to the future in Wilton Center. You’re just not going to see the kind of cluster townhomes that you envision, Michael, because of that very problem of private land ownership and resistance to sell it or combine it into larger properties to make townhomes work. So, the 15 units per acre requirement, if it passes, will be an *average*. And to make that average work, you’re going to have much higher densities in areas that support it, and lower where you cannot. We already see it with Kimco’s proposal at the south end of Town Center on River Road, which is more or less the density of Washington Village, at least in terms of the proposed level of stories and the lack of a pedestrian experience, placemaking and greater community engagement. Kimco, of course, is not being driven by potential future one-size fits all planning approaches but maximizing ROI’s on property they own, which will likely be the driving factor for other properties, hence Washington Village everywhere in Town Center.
The other challenge with a substantial number of new residents, is how many of those people will bring children with them. That’s good news for the school system and bad news for the rest of us who will need to finance it. Michael, you wrote a Letter to the Editor recently encouraging everyone in town to write a blank check to the school system. If say, development happens at a quick pace for the next ten years and we have an influx of 60 new kids per year, will it be financially palatable to all our residents, particularly the retirees on fixed incomes and families not making 200k a year? Or will more of them move out to communities with lower property taxes, like Norwalk, where it’s also just a more exciting place to hang out because there are more things to do? Wasn’t it some Wilton High School students who commented during the Town Center Masterplan that there’s nothing to do in the Town Center? We can build more residential units in Town Center, sure, that’s no issue. But we need to carefully consider and mitigate the trade-offs those units could bring with more or increased cost to services and whether the people coming in want to stick around to upgrade to a single-family house or if they’re just here for the school system, “thank you very much”, and leave when that life chapter is over. That’s part of the alarm that was not said but certainly thought about with the state intimidation plan, sorry, initiative to require denser housing around public transit, regardless of a town’s state-mandated POCD.
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