On Wednesday, Jan. 5, the Village District Design Advisory Committee (VDDAC) held a special meeting. Committee Chair Robert Sanders opened by explaining that Planning & Zoning, the governing agency of VDDAC and the affiliated Architectural Review Board, has engaged the firm BFJ Planning to conduct a master plan process for Wilton Center. Town Planner Michael Wrinn was present to summarize the process so far, outline the next steps, and answer questions from VDDAC.
The Master Plan will be a comprehensive roadmap for how Wilton can utilize and optimize Wilton Center, including residential and commercial development, with consideration for everything from the Norwalk River to streetscape design, buildings heights, parking, civic/green space, historical preservation, wetlands, infrastructure and other initiatives.
“There is a key piece of this, which is yours, which is the design elements,” Wrinn said. “What do we want to see down there? It remains a village district, it has those design guidelines that you’re opining on in every application. That’s the reason I sent these to you.”
After a review of the scope and geographic bounds of the project, Sanders shared comments about the Dec. 16 meeting of P&Z that served as a kick-off to the planning process. He urged the other VDDAC members to watch the recorded meeting as background, expressing his disappointment that a broader vision wasn’t articulated.
“We’ve heard several people including the chair of P&Z saying [to BFJ] ‘we want your vision, we want your vision’ In some ways, that statement is an abdication of the town’s responsibility to have a vision.”
“I would make the case that our committee has the ability to talk about that vision,” said committee member Sam Gardner. “I see this as an opportunity for our committee to articulate a vision and help them.”
The discussion quickly narrowed in on the role of the Norwalk River in the Wilton Center area, which has roughly a quarter-mile of riverfront.
“For years, we’ve said the river should be an asset. The river was there before the road, before the railroad, before Wilton. It is the underlying spine of the district under study. And it’s the one thing the other towns don’t have. Do we get the Wetlands Commission to back off on its protective instincts to have a more interactive planning approach for people and the river? One where we come back in and enhance it as an environmental feature—a boardwalk up by the river, structures near the river.”
Committee member Kevin Quinlan then added the topic of retail and mixed-use approaches to the conversation. “Most vibrant downtowns do have retail, but then we have Kimco saying they propose to omit retail. We could cite studies to steer the best kind of development.”
Wrinn cautioned the group, “You have to be careful to stay within your purview. What I’d rather not see happen is we focus on that end of things, the river, retail, etc. and then we leave the design guidelines out for them to re-do.”
“It’s true that our group has been involved in opining on aesthetic issues but we have seen how consideration of aesthetics inches into intensity of use, and thus zoning, bulk, and other issues,” Gardner responded. “I know that tension is there but I don’t think they’re disconnected.”
Several members of the VDDAC expressed frustration about the role and expectations of their committee in the town’s planning process.
“Periodically P&Z will say want more out of us, that they’re disappointed in our lack of definition. And it’s like, well wait a minute, P&Z has specific legal requirements they have to follow; we’re looser as an entity.”
Quinlan added, “And a lot of the time we’ve been brought in so late that we can only flex so much muscle.”
Committee member Laura Perese expressed support for a proactive approach but warned against a “design by committee” approach. She proposed that VDDAC organize its feedback on the three pillars of the mandate it has been given: character, landscape, and history.
She asked for clarification on when VDDAC would be engaged in the process. Wrinn responded that it wasn’t yet clear, but after further discussion between the committee members, he agreed to find time in the coming weeks for VDDAC to meet with the P&Z subcommittee overseeing the process for an initial conversation.
Wrinn urged the committee to spend time ahead of that meeting reviewing the design guidelines and deciding whether they see deficiencies or glaring issues that need to be addressed.
Sanders expressed support for this early interaction approach. “I don’t mind being confrontational but I don’t think it’s helpful for us to go rogue. P&Z is neither a friend or an enemy, they are our partners,” he said.
This special meeting of P&Z and VDDAC will be announced and publicized once scheduled.