An overflow crowd showed up for last night’s Planning & Zoning Commission meeting, expecting to hear from a Ridgefield real estate developer about his plans for a multi-unit apartment building he is proposing to build on a one-acre lot at 44 Westport Rd.. Because according to the proposal, some of the units are slotted to be classified as affordable housing, the project is controversial because it is being planned under state affordable housing statutes (CT state law 8-30g), which “trump” any kind of local planning and zoning restrictions. Neighbors are objecting to the high-density development in a residential single-family home zone.

In a last minute surprise, the attorney for the developer Patrick Downend sent a letter dated June 9 to the P & Z Commission requesting a continuance. Lawyer J. Casey Healy from Gregory and Adams (a Wilton law firm) wrote that they would not present his client’s proposal last evening and explained that because they received a P&Z staff report about the site location dated June 5, they “are making some revisions to the site plan and preparing a response to the Staff Report. Accordingly, we are not in a position to move forward this evening.”

Monday night’s meeting had been booked into the Brubeck Room of the Wilton Library because P&Z staff anticipated increased public interest; they too were surprised that many more people than expected showed up, so much so that there was standing room only in the room that had seating capacity for 142. Town planner Bob Nerney promised the next meeting would be held in a larger space–likely a school auditorium if possible.

IMG_0050And the public showed they definitely were interested in the subject at hand. Not only was the room filled to capacity and the public comments and questions continuous, but the typical procedural start to the meeting–reading letters and emails received by the commission from the public into the record–took 15 minutes to complete, as P&Z secretary Doris Knapp listed each item of correspondence and author individually.

When commission chair Chris Hulse announced to the crowd the surprise news that the applicant had requested a continuance to the next scheduled P&Z meeting on June 23, but that the public hearing portion of the process would still proceed, it was clear tensions were high. Several members of the public objected and asked whether the commission had legal standing to reject Healy’s request to postpone his formal presentation.

IMG_0047Many in the crowd were upset at the news, and Chairman Hulse allowed several to ask questions about the implication of the continuance. Members of the audience asked how the applicant’s proposal might change by June 23 and how they would be notified about and changes to the plans; several stated the difficulty of having to continuously visit the P&Z offices to view plans, and not being notified if materials and documents changed.

In a statement that he read announcing the continuance, Hulse noted the likelihood that the public hearing would continue to the meeting after June 23, that of July 14, “given the complexity of this application.” He assured residents that they could continue to provide comment and opinion–whether at scheduled meetings or via letter and email correspondence with the commission.

Town planner Bob Nerney told the audience that there’s a “lot of time and effort in putting a public meeting together–we’re sympathetic to your concerns.” He also addressed his interest in finding a larger venue for future meetings, to accommodate the crowd.

Among crowd concerns regarding the continuance:  Could the applicant request a continuance even just 10 minutes before a meeting? (Yes.) Could they continue to request continuances? (Yes.) Did the commission legally have to grant the continuance? (While Nerney was unsure, and he acknowledged the public’s frustration, he did not believe there was legal precedence to deny it.) Could the commission require the applicant to submit plans for public review by a certain date? (No.) 

Nerney explained that, “Under CT law, once a public hearing opens, which is this evening, there is 35 days to conduct the public hearing. The applicant–not the commission, not the public, but the applicant–can agree to further extensions of that time frame.”

He explained that he requested the applicant’s lawyer draft a second letter so that it would be on the record as to the understanding of timing and requirements:  “that the public hearing will be open tonight, that the commission has 35 days to close the public hearing, and 65 days to issue a decision, unless 44 Westport Rd. consents to extensions.” Nerney said he felt it was “in the commissions interests to have the attorney state for the record the statutory provisions.”

While there was no specific answer from the commission regarding the legality of denying the applicant’s request for continuation, they referred to the precedence that no past applicant requests had ever been denied. Nerney said he would not recommend denying such a request, and Hulse reminded the crowd that “sometimes there are non-sinister reasons why they need an extension.”

In a dramatic moment, one resident made a statement that seemed to aim his anger at the applicant’s attorney: “Am I to understand that Casey Healy, one of the most significant real estate people to deal with this, his firm deals with this regularly, month to month with this committee all the time, sent you a letter this afternoon to say that he was not prepared to address this body, after weeks and weeks of being ready for this situation, and have all these people, it was announced in the paper? Casey Healy and his firm said they were not prepared tonight?” It was evening’s first moment to receive applause from the crowd, and received a “yes” response from Nerney.

While Nerney did not have a specific count of the existing number of affordable housing units in town when the question was raised, he estimated it was 236. It was suggested by someone in the crowd that the town look for other existing housing that isn’t currently classified as ‘affordable’ and pursue adding them to the list.

Public questions also turned to whether the town had adequate funds if it became necessary to enter into litigation, potentially having to defend any legal appeal of a decision against the applicant. Nerney replied that, “We have a general account for legal expenses in P&Z, it’s about $40,000. That’s not a lot of money. If this were to result in litigation, it would be an adjustment to the line item request that would have to be approved through the Boards of Selectman and Finance and an additional appropriation.”

***

Hulse then opened the floor to public comments. GOOD Morning Wilton has paraphrased the comments made:

Toni Boucher: I’ve been a resident since 1983, I’m formerly a state representative and currently your state senator. I’m very familiar with these issues as well as the law governing affordable housing. Yet I come as a resident in opposition, this would be an unsafe project. I travel this area every single day. It has changed demonstratively since 1983 where the traffic has grown exponentially, as 10- and 20 Westport Rd. has grown in business occupants. It also has grown as we have widened Rt. 7, and we have a lot of traffic generated from Westport, especially the intersection of Rts 53 and 33, there is a lot of pressure there. We have very old historic homes along this area, we also have bus routes. We currently can’t sustain the traffic we have now, and by generating this project we would be putting the public and our children at risk. I am very familiar with 8-30g, as is your representative Gail Lavielle, we can both tell you we have fought hard to make changes so town have more autonomy. This is a law exploited purely for profit reasons rather than the interests of the community. Since this has been put in place, while for reasons that are altruistic, it has devolved substantially. This law circumvents all local P&Z regulation, unless you can prove there is a significant health issue. I implore the committee to look at the safety issues, there may be health issues as well. This is one project that deserves to be opposed and can be substantiated legally. For [allowing] a continuance, I think you are doing the right thing because you want to stay as close to within the letter of the law. If you get into a position to adjudicate this, you do not want to lose the battle simply because of a procedural problem. They want to not lose on their end as well by not following procedure. I know it’s frustrating, but this one I think we can win it.

Gail Lavielle: I speak as a resident and as the state representative on the side of Westport Rd. where the property is located. I have received, I can’t tell you how many emails, phone calls, from people upset, particularly by the safety considerations related to this proposal. There are many reasons, but the only ones that can be considered under 8-30g are health and safety. The traffic situation has become untenable without changing anything. There is also at [Merritt Parkway] Exit 41 the new construction of the Westport Y, which will lead to increased traffic. One of the many reasons that people choose to live in Wilton, is because they feel safe, that their children can go play out side and be safe, that they can walk down the road and not risk their lives. When you’re talking about a lot of people living in a very compressed space, like Rt. 33, Westport Rd., that’s very difficult to imagine. We have school buses, we have industrial traffic, it’s very difficult to control that situation. About the 8-30g statue: we’ve been confronting this issue in the legislature a very long time. Not to deny the need for affordable housing–one of the reasons we have Wilton Commons is because we have a need in Wilton, for seniors to afford to stay here. But it’s a question of towns being able to choose where it goes. That’s the only question, and it’s the question at the base. But we cannot cite them as objection to the proposal because that’s not the way 8-30g works. On behalf of everyone who has written to me, and everyone who has spoken, I urge you to give all due consideration to the disadvantages of this application. A large multi-family development on that property would present grave safety concerns, I urge you to oppose it.

IMG_0056Mike Huff:  I live at 17 Dudley Rd., the property directly next door to 44 Westport Rd..  We have had hundreds of emails and phone calls from people concerned. We’ve got serious concerns about the traffic safety and about personal safety. Mostly, to my heart, I’m concerned about two little kids. I’ve got two little kids. They play in our driveway, they ride their bikes, they stand in our driveway waiting for the school bus. The biggest concern I have is having that next to a parking lot and significant traffic presents a significant safety issue for them. There’s growing concern about this development. We thank everyone who has expressed their concern and come out tonight expressing their concern. I urge you all to oppose this proposal.

Gail Cioffi: I’m the director of Lambert Commons Condominium Association, which is 49-unit complex just west of 44 Westport Rd..  I’m here to express the concerns of my neighbors.  Emergency and fire vehicles often find our roadways a challenge. Please make sure the fire marshall investigates this one acre to be sure emergency equipment can get around in case of fire or rescue situations. Quite often Lambert Commons residents cannot make a right out of the driveway because of the traffic backup of cars turning left onto Dudley Rd.. With the addition of 20 rental units, and probably 30-40 cars, there will be additional backups in both directions, which will make an already difficult intersection a very dangerous intersection. Has the developer thought of where snow will be stored on the property during harsh winters? Will they insure that when demolition begins of the house on the property, that safety measures will be taken to eliminate asbestos and lead paint in the air? Where will the children meet the school bus? Has anyone given thought to the residents on Clover and Ridge Lanes and the effect additional traffic delays will have on them, as they exit their roads onto Westport Rd., already an almost impossible situation? We are hopeful the state will not allow their statutes to allow a dangerous and unsafe intersection to be created all in the name of affordable housing.

Marlene [unclear], 25 Ridge Lane:  We can walk to 44 Westport Rd.. Years ago, when we were doing the Avalon project, we kept fighting that for nine years, you were doing so well, until the state came along and decided they wanted to put affordable housing. At that point you lost. We tried so hard to keep it a small community, and they ended up doing a massive project. Getting out on 25 Ridge Lane to 33/Westport Rd., you’re taking your chances when you go left, right or straight across. The traffic is just unbelievable. You have to wait and wait just to go.

IMG_0057Eugene “Doug” Jones, 146 Westport Rd., 60 year resident: 3 reasons why this project should be rejected: The 3rd reason, is back in early 1970s, I was part of the presentation team which appeared before this same commission in connection with the proposed Richardson Merrell Corp. During the presentation we specifically stated we were very mindful of our Dudley Rd. neighbors and that no part would be visible from Dudley Rd.. This was before the site was sold, and 20 Westport Rd. was built. Every time I look at 20 Westport Rd., I get mad at myself because I said that would not be visible. I’m a retired traffic engineer, having lived on Westport Rd. for 60 years; and traffic was bad most of the time today, and completely impossible during rush hour. Any additional traffic is completely unacceptable. During the evening rush hour, traffic is backed up eastbound from the light at Chestnut Hill to Rt. 7 and beyond. People like shortcuts and one of the favorite is to cut across Dudley Rd., speed up Spoonwood, up to Chestnut Hill and continue to the Parkway. Our police department should really look at that. Affirmative action by P&Z [on this application] could serve as justification for similar projects throughout the town of Wilton, and this is not why we moved to Wilton.

Carey Field:  Especially when traffic backs up, it can take you a half-hour just to get out of Topfield and onto Rt. 33. People drive way too fast down Dudley Rd.. With a multi-apartment complex it will get worse. People have passed me on a double yellow line, which is crazy on a windy road. There are a lot of school buses and a lot of kids. You just have to stand at the intersection of 33 and Dudley to realize how bad the traffic is because of the office park, the traffic on Rt. 7, and the traffic on Rt. 33.  I can’t imagine how someone can put a 20 unit, 41 parking spot complex on one acre. There are potential flooding issues if everything is already built out, where will all that water go, there is flooding in that area. Freezing rain when the weather is cold it will create dangerous conditions. I can’t think of any good reason why a 20 unit apartment should be built on that location. If this builder wins it sets a dangerous precedent. That’s not why I moved to Wilton, I moved to Wilton for the open spaces.

Barbara Quincy: I’m a 50-year resident, former P&Z member and chair. Someone gave me the P&Z Staff Report, dated June 5. You have already made 51 points regarding the application and they haven’t yet presented it; 51 concerns–anyone in the audience, if they want, get a copy, it will make you feel better.  In defense of 8-30g, this statute has done a lot of good, I don’t think it should be trashed in this town. Wilton is nowhere near the 10 percent threshold. You’re going to continue to get applications. This one doesn’t seem appropriate for this space, but they’re out there. It’s needed.

Kathy Zalantis, Ridge Lane:  Procedurally, residents are always playing catch-up. The town could require developers to put their documents and plans on a disc, and the Town could put them up on the website. My neighbor spent $200 copying plans, and that’s a cost for the resident. I think there’s enough interest in this room, you could put all that information on the website. [applause] Another concern is that this applicant has 60 percent site coverage. That’s not a good idea for any development, but especially the area is right outside the FEMA flood A zone. There’s significant wetlands, there’s going to be runoff. In fact in the engineering report, it admits there’s going to be significant runoff–he’s not designing to prevent runoff. I think their [site coverage] calculations are off; they’re not including significant stone walls that run the perimeter of the property, also the concrete pad. If you look at the numbers, it’s way more than the 59 percent that they claim. They’re also suggesting one way of mitigating impervious asphalt. From the CT Dept Environmental Protection’s website, they don’t recommend that method. This is the primary method the developer is recommending, and the CT state DEP says they don’t recommend using this method. What could be better in a place right outside a FEMA A flood zone than to put in a method that is going to fail right from the outset. [applause]  If it does work, the site is an aquifer. You’re going to have an increased amount of salt to contaminate the ground water. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If it doesn’t work, you’re going to have runoff; if it does work, you’re going to have salt in the groundwater. [applause]

(continued) There’s a lack of open space and recreation areas. The whole entire site is covered with building and asphalt. Even compared to other 8-30g developments, look at Avalon, it has 38 percent site coverage; this has 60 percent site coverage. There’s no place on this site that has appropriate recreation except the space that borders two very busy roads. Recreation areas should be interior, they shouldn’t be basically in the setback areas. Where will children play? Where will people go to partake in the outdoors? There is no place on this site, and that is a significant health and safety risk. You’re setting it up for children to play in the right of way of a highway. [applause] Also, traffic:  The traffic engineer used by the developer said it was necessary to mitigate traffic impacts by not proposing ingress and egress off of Dudley, but they leave out that there is a small parking lot off Dudley. So cars will be entering from Dudley–the very thing they say they need, they violated. That’s the area people will use for deliveries, to drop off or pick up somebody; that’s a significant traffic risk. We live on Ridge Lane; if I’m trying to pull out and a neighbor is trying to pull in, it stops traffic. That’s only 25 ft. wide; they’re proposing 22 ft. width. We already know that doesn’t work on Ridge Ln., that’s real world, you don’t have to do traffic studies, it doesn’t work. Someone has to stop in order for somebody to get out [of Ridge]. Clover is the same. So you’re proposing the exact same situation that doesn’t work [across the street at 44 Westport Rd.]; you’re going to have three stoppage points, that’s a significant traffic risk.

(continued) There’s also not sufficient off-site parking. Where are visitors going to park. Most of the spaces are not viable spaces. There’s not significant handicap spaces, spaces too close to the entrance ways. When you get down to it, there are very few actual spaces on the site, and there will be an overflow of parking to create very dangerous conditions.

Bob Kettle: Kettle read a statement, which he later provided to GOOD Morning WiltonWith his permission, we have published those comments here

[Name Unclear]:  I’ve grown up in this town and I’ve sent he change–traffic has gone downhill. A lot of people drive like it’s the Indy 500. I was rear-ended on Rt. 33, waiting to turn left. Two cars were totaled in that accident. On Dudley, people always ignore the speed limit. In fact when I was a kid it was called ‘Deadly Rd.’ People just drive really fast. When you turn left onto Dudley, from Rt. 33, I’ve done this myself: when there’s an opening, as the traffic is constantly coming down on Rt. 33, you see an opening, you shoot in, because [otherwise] you might be sitting there. If you have a parking lot or a drive and someone backs out, or a child runs out, that will be the end of them. People drive very fast on that road and that won’t ever change. Also the plan, one drive comes out on 33 and the other on Dudley. You can just circumvent the turn on Dudley and people will discover this, as a shortcut. There will be an accident eventually, someone will get run over in the parking lot.

Margaret Donahue, 99 Westport Rd.: We purchased our home last summer, amid concerns that we were on a busy street. This may not be a cul de sac, but a neighborhood it is. We were distressed–this has nothing to do with affordable housing. It will set a precedent for several properties along Westport Rd.. Our own property along with our neighbors’ is one acre. If we as a town allow this project to move forward, where does it end? Does it stop when every one-acre lot is next door or in danger of becoming an apartment building? Will mass builders only be satisfied once Westport Rd. is no longer a tree-lined street no longer filled with beautiful homes but replaced by apartment complexes? Mr. Downend is abusing the policies of affordable housing to push his self-profiting project forward. While the thought of our beloved street turning into a line of parking lots there’s an even bigger issue–our children’s safety. Westport Rd. is already overwhelmed with traffic, especially during rush hour when the buses are picking up and dropping off our children for all three schools. The school bus for Miller-Driscoll alone makes 9 stops on Westport Rd. in the mooring. This creates a long line of traffic headed toward the Merritt Parkway. I personally witness drivers recklessly passing the school bus while my daughter was boarding. Adding an apartment complex of any size to this already overwhelmed traffic on Westport Rd. adds a direct threat to my 4- and 6-year-old children. I urge Wilton to collectively place our children’s safety above Mr. Downend’s profits.