Tensions Rise within Wetlands Commission as Two Major Projects — 141 Danbury & CT Humane Soc. — Receive Approval

The Inland Wetlands Commission meeting on Thursday night (Oct. 28) concluded with the approval of two large-scale development projects, but also ignited a minor skirmish between commissioners.

Earlier this month, the Commission voted to prepare resolutions approving the applications for 141 Danbury Rd., the proposal for a 173-unit multi-family complex on a 4.2-acre site at the former site of the Melissa and Doug corporate office; and 863-875 Danbury Rd., a proposal to construct a new headquarters for the Connecticut Humane Society. GOOD Morning Wilton has covered the projects extensively as they have worked their way through the town review process.

In both cases, when the time came for the Commission to vote on the prepared resolutions, disagreements about parliamentary procedure and lingering concerns briefly derailed the process, but both projects ultimately received approval.

141 Danbury Road

Regarding 141 Danbury Rd., Commissioner Theodora Pinou continued her inquiry about microplastics introduced during the October 14 meeting, and suggested a new proposed stipulation to require signage and educational opportunities for residents on the importance of protecting the river and its habitat.

“People have worked very hard to keep the Norwalk River clean,” she said. “We’ve seen eel and fish populations return, which is not only good for Wilton but good for all the towns along the river. These platforms you’ve designed that bring people to the river invite these unintended consequences — how are you going to keep some child’s birthday balloon out of the water? Or a cigarette?”

Commission Chairman Nick Lee responded that although he took her comments to heart, “we’ve never required any signage or education to residents as part of an application before.”

When the time came to vote, Commissioner Rick Stow presented the motion and Commissioner Penelope Koechl seconded it. Before a vote could take place, Pinou seemed to challenge the Commission process, urging that additional discussion take place, and that an amendment about signage and education be added.

Pinou also objected to the amount of time Commissioners were given to review the draft resolution prepared by staff. Lee replied that the resolution had been provided to Commissioners two days prior: “The opportunity was there and I don’t want to argue about it. I want to move forward at this time.”

Koechl noted that there had been “exhaustive discussion” of the project already, with a third party expert visiting the site twice to confirm findings.

The Commission went on to vote on the draft resolution approval the project, which passed 3-1 with Commissioners Lee, Stow, and Koechl in favor. Pinou voted against the resolution, saying, “My understanding was that there would be some discussion but clearly there will not be.”

Lee urged Pinou to bring up concerns and proposed amendments earlier in the process going forward.

Humane Society Headquarters

Moving on to the other major project on the docket, Wilton’s Director of Environmental Affairs Mike Conklin introduced the fact that new information has been disclosed for the application by the Connecticut Humane Society to develop 863-875 Danbury Road.

The first new item of discussion was a series of photographs submitted by Eileen Fitzgerald, on behalf of Stephen and Dorinka Traski, which purported to show the presence of vernal pools on the property. Indeed, the scanned image showed significant standing water on the site, but landscape architect Matthew Popp drew a distinction between pooled water from certain weather events and true vernal pools:

“Around the time of the spring thaw when the ground is still frozen, you’ll see ponding in lawn areas, but this is not a vernal pool. It’s the result of a rain event.”

A second piece of new information proved more controversial. Popp disclosed that following the previous meeting, the applicant discovered the recorded presence of the eastern box turtle, considered a species of special concern by the state of Connecticut.

Pinou interrupted, “Why on page 3 of your application does it say you checked the state database and no species of special concern were observed?”

Real estate attorney James Murphy admitted that it was an error on the part of the applicant and noted that his clients had retained ecologist Dennis Quinn, an expert in eastern box turtles, to consult on mitigation measures.

Quinn delivered a lengthy presentation on recommendations to both reduce the potential impact on the species, if present, and ultimately create a more suitable environment for turtles on the site. He explained that box turtles normally use riparian areas, such as wetlands, only briefly in the course of the year, to rehydrate after emerging from hibernation. He also noted that the existing environment on the site was fragmented enough that turtle populations may already have declined significantly since first observed in 2009, the most recent record available.

Pinou asked why only the project site was being studied, not the broader parcel of land. In particular, she challenged the fact that an assessment of the Norwalk River and its fish population was not conducted. Popp pushed back:

“The Norwalk River is not on the project site, it’s across Route 7, up and around. It’s not even an adjacent property.”

At that point, Conklin intervened to clarify that the Inland Wetlands Commission’s mandate is “narrow, specific and set by the state.”

“The only question before the Commission,” he said, “is whether the proposed activities of the application will have an adverse impact on the wetlands on this site.”

Lee then reiterated Commission procedure that a draft resolution was before the Commission for an up-or-down vote. Stow motioned for a vote on the resolution, seconded by Koechl, which passed in a vote of 3-1 with Pinou once again opposing the project.

Next steps

Both projects are currently under consideration at the Planning & Zoning Commission (P&Z), which could not act on either application until decisions were reached at the Inland Wetlands Commission. The next meeting of P&Z is scheduled for November 8, 2021.

In the final moments of the meeting, Koechl thanked Lee for his decades of service leading the Inland Wetlands Commission as well as the Conservation Commission, and Lee noted that this meeting would be his final as chair due to term limit regulations. At the next meeting, scheduled for Nov. 11, 2021, the Commissioners will vote on a new chair.