During the Sept. 12 meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z), the commissioners grappled with outdated and vague elements of Wilton’s town regulations. A second hearing for a signage package sparked a heated argument between the commissioners themselves on the group’s protocols and priorities. And in an echo of this summer’s conversation with the Wilton Land Conservation Trust over the non-profit’s plans for 183 Ridgefield Rd., two projects on the Sept. 12 agenda initiated a debate over when to require a traffic study for changes in use on a property.
Debates over Traffic Study Requirements Continue to Crop up
As part of her application for Create Learning Center to increase its enrollment from 64 to 90 at the daycare’s 463 Danbury Rd. location, owner Sharon Cowley requested a waiver of the traffic study normally required for special permit applications. She cited in part a letter from Wilton Chief of Police John P. Lynch stating that the department has no safety concerns about traffic on the site, similar to one presented as part of the application for 183 Ridgefield Rd..
Members of the Commission explained to Cowley, as they had to the Land Trust, that a formal traffic study looks at traffic safety elements that are distinct from those that the Police Department is able to assess during these site visits.
“I want Ms. Cowley to understand,” Commissioner Chris Pagliaro said, “the traffic study is not your on-site circulation. It really is about the interaction with Danbury Rd.” As an example, he offered that a traffic study might recommend that left or right-hand turns be restricted during certain periods of the day based on traffic behavior along Rte. 7 and the way topography influences driver behavior.
Cowley agreed to return to the Commission at the next meeting with data on enrollment and the current and proposed traffic flow in and out of the property, which will help inform an eventual vote on the waiver request. Several members of the Create client community also submitted letters in support of the expansion asserting that the site does not currently have a traffic problem.
“We’re not trying to be difficult, but we have a lot of applications coming in and we want to make sure we’re insisting on data from everyone,” explained Vice Chair Melissa-Jean Rotini. “And I appreciate that the people who are there currently don’t see a traffic issue, but to be fair, you’re going to [increase] the capacity.”
Later in the evening, the issue of traffic study waivers came up once again, but this time with a more favorable outcome for the applicant. White Fences and Warriors Group LLC presented its proposal for an adaptive reuse of two office buildings at 523 and 529 Danbury Rd. to create nine residential units. The project’s conversations with the Architectural Review Board were covered by GOOD Morning Wilton over the summer.
In this case, the commission agreed that the change in use involved in the project’s special permit may not rise to the level of requiring a traffic study. As part of the project, the doggie daycare facility Bone and Bark Inn will be relocated to its new home at 15 Cannon Rd. Rotini noted that the project may in fact reduce traffic impacts by eliminating pet drop-off and pick-up hours, as well as commute arrivals and departures for those currently working at the 523 and 529 buildings.
The Commission voted to approve the applicant’s request for a waiver of the traffic study, with the only “no” vote coming from Commissioner Chris Wilson. Members also voted to approve a second waiver, absolving the applicant from needing to conduct an environmental study. In this case as well, the Commission felt that the project may in fact improve environmental conditions on the site, given that new pavement additions will be minimal and a significant portion of the site currently cleared for dog runs will be replanted with vegetation.
The Commission then engaged in a brief discussion of traffic waivers and how best to handle them to ensure that applicants receive equal treatment. Tomasetti explained that he sees two cases for requiring a traffic study: either the project is a high generator of new traffic (such as a building with a significantly higher density than the existing site) or it introduces a new use for the property that makes the impacts unknowable without further data and analysis.
However, several commissioners reiterated a concern about fairness to applicants — both in ensuring that a standard is applied consistently and that something should be done to minimize the financial burden on applicants for whom the cost of a full traffic study may be significant. On this point, a member of the public had a suggestion. Barbara Geddis spoke during the public hearing period and proposed that the commission outline a pared-down set of requirements for traffic studies that would make the cost more reasonable.
“I think it would help applicants who think it requires a $25,000 traffic study,” said Geddis.
Before moving on, Tomasetti requested that Wrinn add a discussion of waivers to the agenda of an upcoming P&Z meeting for further discussion. Wrinn also agreed to prepare a draft resolution to be voted on at the following meeting that will approve the White Fences project with a few minor conditions regarding driveway flow and window design.
A Disagreement over Signage Devolves into Argument
The bulk of the evening’s discussion concerned the second presentation by attorney Jim Murphy representing Hartford Healthcare Corp. On Aug. 24, Murphy led the initial presentation for an alternative signage application for the rear area of the Hartford Healthcare Corporation complex to indicate two new tenants, Advanced Radiology at 60 Danbury Rd. and Soundview Medical at 50 Danbury Rd.
During that August discussion, Pagliaro and fellow Commissioner Ken Hoffman disagreed over the appropriateness of placing tenant logos on building facades.
“I hate it,” said Pagliaro at the time. “It’s the Bronx — too colorful, too many logos. I don’t care if you don’t see it from the street. It’s branding and I don’t think we need to brand buildings.”
Hoffman had replied, “I believe people invest a huge amount of money in leaseholds. Unless it’s obtrusive, I think people should be able to put signs on buildings.”
By Monday’s follow-up presentation, tensions were running considerably higher. During the Commission’s question-and-answer period with the applicant, Pagliaro challenged the presenting team, asking, “Are you guys saying you haven’t changed anything since the last application?”
Although Murphy and others involved in the project argued that the proposal had been changed to minimize the size of one of the signs, upon questioning, it came out that the sign had been reduced by just 5% of its original size. Furthermore, the applicant’s team acknowledged the reason it could not be reduced further was as a result of the font used in one of the logos under contention.
The group also presented a narrative case for logo-based signage along Danbury Rd., but Rotini and others pointed out that the examples provided showed logos mainly on monument-style entrance signage, not logos adhered to buildings themselves.
After a continued back and forth between Pagliaro and the applicant over the fonts, colors, and brand imagery being proposed for the signage, Hoffman interjected.
“I am paid millions of dollars of years to develop brands for entities larger than any of the entities represented here — Hartford Healthcare, Advanced Radiology, or the Town of Wilton,” he began. “I have patiently listened to people explain branding and it’s not true a lot of what’s been said. When brands are done, people pick their logos and typefaces for their identities; they pick their colors to represent on the emotions that they would like to communicate. And it is done carefully and deliberately. It’s not throwing up a billboard.”
He then challenged: if the Town of Wilton prefers that companies use one of the alternative logos prepared as part of any brand identity, such as a monochrome black version, why don’t the town’s regulations state that explicitly?
“Why are we spending time insulting the graphic designers who did work on these logos about their color and typeface choices on these buildings? To me, this is a ridiculous conversation,” he said, seeming to grow more frustrated.
Pagliaro responded, “My conversation is about the branding of my town, how’s that?”
“In which case, why don’t we have regulations about this that are clear?” Hoffman said back.
After a brief uproar in which several commissioners tried to speak at once, Tomasetti regained the floor and responded to Hoffman.
“We have been moving to get those regulations in place for a number of years now,” he began. “It just has not come up on our agenda recently. We have limited time and limited resources —”
“We have time to spend two hours discussing these people’s logos,” Hoffman shot back.
Tomasetti then declared, “I don’t think it’s appropriate to be having this type of dialogue between the members of the Commission and this applicant.” He returned to the procedural meeting and asked Murphy whether the applicant would like to continue the hearing to the following meeting. Murphy agreed.
Later in the evening, Tomasetti, Hoffman, and Pagliaro had a considerably more restrained conversation about the substantive disagreement at issue and the Commission agreed to add discussion of new signage regulations to an upcoming meeting agenda.
In closing, Tomasetti spoke to the group, as the clock ticked past 10 p.m. “I appreciate that we can get passionate about this,” he said. “But we have to carry ourselves with a certain amount of decorum. Don’t speak over others, don’t speak over me. We will not be having meetings that look inappropriate to our community. We’ve worked together well in the past and I’d like to continue that. We’ll take this as a result of the late hour and several applications going on longer than they typically do.”
Before concluding, the Commission also voted to approve an overnight security lighting plan for the Bank of America in Wilton Center. This issue, too, exposed elements of Wilton town regulations that may be in need of revision, with Wrinn and Tomasetti noting that technically such lighting is not allowed without permission from P&Z. The Commission agreed to the overnight lights as a matter of safety.
Wrinn summarized a few topics that will appear on the agendas of upcoming meetings, including a public hearing on extending the moratorium on cannabis businesses in Wilton, which is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 27. The Commission also continues to explore options for regulating AirBnBs and other short-term rentals. Several projects will soon make their way to P&Z for review, including the LDS Meeting House that recently completed its review at ARB, a new application for the 19 Cannon Rd. multi-family project that was withdrawn earlier this year, and a proposal to convert a historic church at 254 Danbury Rd. and nearby land to 10 residential units.
The next meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 27.