At last week’s meeting of Wilton’s Historic District and Historic Property Commission (HDHP) on Nov. 3, commissioners approved an opinion letter stating their position on potential plans by the Town to increase the supply of affordable housing units on Town-owned, residential property in Georgetown.
Commission chair Allison Sanders indicated she would be sending the agreed-upon letter to Wilton’s Director of Land Use and Town Planner Michael Wrinn.
Sanders initially proposed drafting the letter at the Commission’s Aug. 2 meeting, after the Board of Selectmen (BOS) announced it would explore the feasibility of affordable housing units at 872 Danbury Rd. (also known as 7 New St.) and 31 New St.
Those two properties are immediately adjacent to (though technically not within) the designated Georgetown historic district, known as the Local Historic District #6 Extension. Properties in the historic district face the Town-owned properties directly across the street; one of the two Town-owned properties borders the historic Gilbert & Bennett School.
The letter expresses the commission’s concern about the potential impact of new development on the historic district and advocates for the commission to be involved in the review process of any eventual plans. That involvement would be unusual, considering the properties are technically not within the designated local historic district.
However, Sanders argues that the two Town-owned properties are listed under a National Register historic district, and for that reason the properties are of great interest to the commission.
The commission’s letter urges the Town to require that consideration be given to “the architectural context of the location as strongly as other aspects” (such as topography, water supply, traffic patterns, etc.) in assessing the potential redevelopment of the town-owned properties.
Specifically, the letter highlights “the importance of respecting and responding to the scale and style of Local Historic District #6 Extension’s existing streetscape in considering the scope and design the project.”
The letter brings particular attention to the the Gilbert & Bennett school, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and shares a border with one of the town-owned properties.
“The neighborhood grew in response to the [Gilbert & Bennett] school being there. Everything is very tightly connected in terms of size and scale to the school. The two properties that the town owns are currently in scale,” Sanders noted.
The commission’s letter includes information from a National Register statement of historical and architectural significance which says, in part, “The New Street homes are nicely situated around the school… the survival of these ‘cottage’ homes without intrusion from newer, larger homes is in itself a testimony to the continued harmony and innate contentment of the village atmosphere.”
Sanders emphasized the importance for any new development to maintain “harmony” in the area.
“We are very concerned that anything that might be done to change those structures should be in harmony with the existing streetscape,” Sanders said.
“It would have tremendous impact on the houses across the street if they had some poorly proportioned, overly large bulky structures facing them. That would be terrible,” Sanders added.
Housing Committee Sees “Real Potential”
As of publication time, GOOD Morning Wilton has not received confirmation that Michael Wrinn has actually received the commission’s letter yet. However, Wrinn spoke at last night’s Nov. 9 meeting of Wilton’s Housing Committee, to update the committee on the two Town-owned properties.
Wrinn’s comments suggest he will be receptive to the Historic District Commission’s opinion. Early in the discussion with the Housing Committee, he acknowledged that the surrounding local and national historic districts could hardly be ignored.
“We do realize it’s not just a standalone property. It has to be taken into context with everything else that’s around it,” Wrinn said.
Housing Committee chair John Kelly noted that when the committee did its initial inventory of Town-owned properties, it considered the New St. properties as “probably the most promising candidate[s] for potential housing development.”
“We’re pleased that the town seems to have shared this conclusion,” Kelly said. “I do think there’s some real potential. It would be exciting to be able to create something that would increase the [Town’s affordable housing].”
Wrinn echoed the need to examine the properties’ potential, and emphasized that the Town was in the early stage of exploring that potential.
“It’s very important that we continue to explore the diversity of housing that we need here,” Wrinn said.
At the same time, Wrinn dispelled the notion that the Town would seek a large-scale development on the site. Wrinn used the example of the proposed 173-unit apartment complex at 141 Danbury Rd. — a property similar in size to the combined New St. properties — to draw a sharp contrast to what would be envisioned for New St.
“This is not that,” Wrinn declared. “This is not that property. This is not that idea. We’re looking at a much smaller scale project.”
Rather than approaching the project in a way that would maximize the number of housing units, Wrinn suggested that the design would be the priority.
“The design is as important an aspect of this project going forward as anything else,” Wrinn said.
Wrinn added, “Given what we’ve heard from the historical commission, all of that has to be taken into consideration.”
Other Nearby Development
While the Historic District Commission is going on the record with its concerns about the Town-owned New St. properties, the commission has not expressed a point of view regarding the proposed development of 863-875 Danbury Rd., just opposite the entrance to New Street, by the Connecticut Humane Society (CHS).
Several New St. area residents have expressed concerns and opposition to the proposed building due to its modern architecture, which they consider to be out of step with the nearby historic district.
The CHS development team has vigorously defended the modern design choice in earlier public meetings. A statement issued by CHS said, “The property is not within a historic district and therefore the applications do not need to be reviewed by the [Historic District Commission].”