Wilton’s Housing Committee and the Wilton Library co-sponsored a panel discussion on Thursday, May 18 on the important — and sometimes controversial — topic of housing in Wilton.
Michael Bellacosa, head of adult programming at the Library, welcomed five panelists and numerous members of the community at the event, “Wilton Discusses Housing — Past, Present and Future.” The event was well attended by the public, with about 70 people registered in advance.
“I think we all know that housing is one of the most important current topics across the country and in Connecticut and here in Wilton,” Bellacosa said.
The panel discussion focused on the Town’s housing objectives and how efforts to address housing needs are evolving, both locally and regionally. The forum also included questions and comments from the community.
The panelists included:
- Steven Parrinello, Housing Committee Chair
- John Kelly, Housing Committee member and former chair
- Francis Pickering, Executive Director of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WestCOG)
- Michael Wrinn, Wilton’s Director of Planning and Land Use Management/Town Planner
- Scott Lawrence, former chair of both the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) and the Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) Committee
First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice had planned to be on the panel but was unable to attend.
Parrinello served as the moderator. In his remarks, he emphasized that more discussions on the subject of housing will take place.
“We intend for this to be the first of many of these public panels,” he said.
The Wilton Library Association has posted a video recording of the entire panel discussion on its YouTube channel.
Housing Goals Rooted in POCD
Parrinello began with a brief review of the Housing Committee’s origins. Formed in late 2020 as an outgrowth of the 2019 POCD, the Committee has a short history.
“The Housing Committee’s purpose is to evaluate, define, and monitor the need for diverse housing options and affordable housing in Wilton,” according to the Committee’s charge.
Wilton’s Housing Committee is more limited in its scope than the “housing authority” in surrounding towns such as Westport, Norwalk and New Canaan. The Committee is responsible for documenting the need for various housing types, including affordable housing; creating an inventory of existing housing types and afforable housing units; and identifying ways to encourage diverse housing development.
While Parrinello alluded to the Town’s past efforts to add more diverse housing stock — such as Ogden House, White Oaks at Wilton, Avalon apartments, Wilton Commons, and Station Place — he noted the flurry of more recent projects adding to Wilton’s housing supply, including 200 Danbury Rd. (Sharp Hill Square), 2 Hollyhock Rd. and 141 Danbury Rd. (Note: the panelists purposely did not discuss any projects currently in the application process.)
With the vast majority of Wilton’s housing stock in single-family homes averaging about $1.1 million, and with the average two-bedroom apartment commanding close to $4,000 per month, Parrinello said Wilton has a big question to answer.
“What do we want as a town to be more diverse in our housing stock?” Parrinello asked.
Affordable housing — which Parrinello mentioned “means different things to different people” — is just one example of the potential priority needs.
“Do we want more housing for downsizing seniors? ASML obviously is making a big commitment to our town… looking to bring a significant amount of new employees, some of which will include manufacturing and support staff with an average age of 28. So as a town, how do we address that?”
He added that housing needs also exist for Town employees, such as police, firefighters, and teachers.
Lawrence spoke further about the POCD, which stated that the need for diverse housing was one of the “overarching themes” of the Plan, which reads, “Wilton will support diverse housing types while protecting its low-density residential neighborhoods.”
“One of the core recommendations of the POCD was to create a Housing Committee, because it is such an important topic, deserves its own committee to study, to advance policies, to talk to zoning, to understand the markets,” Lawrence said. “The issues are the same or stronger [than in 2019] — probably more important than they have ever been.”
Citing “controversy, angst, and lawsuits” over previously proposed multifamily housing projects, Lawrence said the Town understood how “fragmented” various stakeholders are when it comes to development. The POCD provides a common touchstone for making decisions about moving forward.
“When you’re ‘in the moment’ of a zoning application or a municipal project, it’s very hard to get the pulse of the population,” Lawrence said. “So what do we do? By state statute, each town sits down and develops a [POCD] document with thorough community input. What are the issues facing the town? What are the trends facing the town? What does the town envision for itself for the next 10 years?”
Lawrence explained the 18-month POCD process included surveys and discussions with stakeholders, interest groups, and every town board/commission related to land use — all with outside consulting guidance, and covering everything from demographics to infrastructure, transportation, conservation, historical preservation, and cultural resources.
“By far the most prevalent issue that faced us at that time was housing,” Lawrence said. “It still is.”
“[It was] immediately clear — [and] probably obvious to you all in this room and listening to this — we need more housing,” Lawrence continued. “We need more types, we need more price points, we need more designs.”
The POCD was not intended to provide specific recommendations for what housing should be built, but Lawrence says the needs continue to grow.
“It’s a snapshot. We developed it [in] 2019 and created a snapshot of where the community’s thought process and viewpoints were then. As we all know, a lot has happened since then [and] exacerbated the issues that were spotted in the 2019 POCD… all of the pressure points driving a need for more housing, more different types of housing, have grown.”
Lawrence traced Wilton’s current housing challenges back to the way Wilton “organically” developed as a town in its earliest days and without a traditional “main street” town center. He urged community members to read the background articulated in the POCD’s introduction as an important context for the housing challenges Wilton faces today.
Achieving the 10% affordable housing goal defined by the state is widely viewed as a herculean — if not impossible — task for Wilton. Wrinn addressed that point.
“If we think about how we try to reach that number, it’s going to be very, very difficult. That’s close to another 500 units that we need of affordable housing,” Wrinn said, adding that new, market-rate housing would only raise the hurdle for reaching a 10% share of affordable housing.
Wrinn highlighted accessory dwelling units (ADU) as “a win” for Wilton, especially in light of a recently streamlined permit process for homeowners and very reasonable restrictions. Wrinn said ADUs were “a very, very good thing to have” because they are not disruptive to neighbors. The problem is, they are often not deed-restricted or even known to the Town, and therefore not “counted” as “affordable” under the Connecticut statute.
Wrinn also noted that the Wilton Center Master Plan will “loosen up” some regulations to encourage more housing. He called the area “ripe for transit-oriented development.”
Alluding to pre-application discussions with Kimco (and hinting at possibly others), Wrinn said, “There is a lot happening there in Wilton Center.”
When Parrinello asked Wrinn to comment on the degree of interest compared to a year ago, Wrinn said it was “probably stronger.”
“We’ve got a lot of people knocking on the door to see what they can do with various projects,” Wrinn said. “We’ll see where they go, but there is a lot of interest up and down Danbury Road.”
Wrinn also addressed a common perception that multifamily housing creates a burden on schools. He cited two recent studies that have shown that this is not the case.
Pickering offered several comments from WestCOG’s perspective as one of the state’s nine regional councils focused on matters of interest to member municipalities.
“Housing has been a large concern in this region,” Pickering said, quickly explaining that proximity to New York City made the WestCOG region unique in Connecticut.
“We are a different real estate market than the rest of the state. We have historically faced higher prices and often a lack of understanding from policymakers in Hartford,” Pickering said.
“Housing markets are regional,” Pickering continued. “When people move somewhere for a job or for lifestyle, they don’t generally pick a community first. They pick a region, and then they drill down to where the schools are good, where there are amenities they like, maybe transportation hubs, and where they can find a house in their price range.”
That’s why, Pickering said, “what one town does affects another town, and vice versa.” That’s why WestCOG can play a role in offering local P&Z a broader perspective.
“For about 60 years now, [WestCOG] has had a role in assisting planning and zoning commissions in looking at transportation, land use, economic development, and other related factors at the regional level.”
Pickering said proposed amendments to Wilton’s zoning regulations, zoning maps, and even the POCD are reviewed by WestCOG for “harmony” with other municipalities in the region and consistency with regional goals.
WestCOG also played a role in Wilton’s Affordable Housing Plan, adopted in March 2022 as required by the state. Wilton took advantage of the “toolbox” offered by the Council, which served to outline the greater need for affordable housing while adding specific strategies that Wilton officials identified to achieve it.
Wilton’s infrastructure is one of the limitations to adding more affordable housing. Pickering noted that Wilton only has about 30 acres with access to public water and sewer.
“If you want to reduce home prices, it’s about reducing home sizes,” Pickering said. “The challenge, of course, we face is that most of the development has not been in public infrastructure. It’s been on private well and private septic system. And that requires a certain lot size to be able to accommodate those two things together without fouling the water or creating environmental problems.”
“The only solution you really have is higher density on public infrastructure,” Pickering said. That infrastructure is primarily in Wilton Center and along the Danbury Rd. corridor, as noted in the POCD and Affordable Housing Plan.
Pickering also discussed Connecticut’s affordable housing statute, 8-30g. Since the statute effectively frees developers to bypass local zoning regulations, Pickering says zoning regulations are not necessarily the barrier to more affordable housing, as some housing advocates have suggested.
‘If a municipality does not have enough affordable housing, the presumption is that local land use regulations [are] what’s holding it back,” he said. “The challenges we see these days are that zoning is not the impediment to deeply affordable housing. It’s the cost of land. It’s the cost of lending, [and] the availability and cost of [building materials] and contractors. These are things that are not addressed by zoning, and we do need state leadership on this.”
Pickering also mentioned a forthcoming financing study by WestCOG which will enable municipalities to explore how to maximize affordable housing units under different price scenarios.
Kelly concluded the panelists’ discussion with a reminder about what the evening’s objective was.
“The goal this evening was primarily informational. We wanted to revisit the town’s POCD, to inform new residents, and remind longer-term residents of the commitments concerning housing that we made in the POCD, and we wanted to make sure people have the ability to learn more about both regional and local efforts… We really are hoping to hold some future workshops or other community gatherings where we can start to collect information from people as we put out ideas.”
Two Selectmen Add To The Discussion
Selectwoman Kim Healy attended the discussion and recommended residents subscribe to Vanderslice’s monthly email updates, which often include information about housing initiatives.
Healy noted some of the challenges and shortcomings of the current 8-30g statute.
“It’s been around for, I think, 35 years. There have been attempts to amend it. Who determined that 10% [affordable housing share] is the right number? Maybe it needs to be lower, maybe it needs to be higher. Why is a 40-year deed restriction the magic number? Those are going to start coming offline. What do we do with them?”
She also called attention to state legislative proposals that could impact Wilton.
“There are many bills running through the legislature this session, one of which, called Fair Share, could be pretty significant to adding density to our town,” Healy said. “I think it’s important that people understand what could potentially happen to our town if these laws get passed.”
Selectman Ross Tartell also offered comment at the meeting, emphasizing that Wilton has historically placed a high priority on acquiring and maintaining open space.
“As we do our planning and maybe increase density in certain areas, there’s certain parts of Wilton that are going to stay the same and will be retained, that really maintain our sense of place,” Tartell said.
Lawrence agreed, highlighting that the POCD, by definition, addressed both conservation and development. While he said the POCD’s attention to conservation efforts was fitting, it had to be concurrent with efforts to add housing diversity.
“The 2019 POCD recognized that those things [trails, parks, etc.] are absolutely essential to bringing people to Wilton. But you have to address all of these other factors that are facing Wilton, as the state legislature and competing towns and economics make it imperative… We’ve got to find a space and a way to make housing options work. We’ve got to find it. It’s just imperative,” Lawrence said.
More Residents Weigh In
One Wilton resident, who also works in the commercial real estate business, asked the panel to discuss the impact of Wilton’s vacant office spaces, including how declining tax revenue from office buildings might shift a greater burden onto taxpayers.
Lawrence noted that many office buildings simply don’t lend themselves to conversion to apartments or other housing.
“Some of them will convert a lot more easily than others. Do I see a mass conversion on the horizon? No, I don’t,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence also noted that tax revenue is often greater from a property converted to multi-family residential use than it was from office use. That is expected to be the case with the former Melissa and Doug headquarters at 141 Danbury Rd., for example.
Another resident suggested Wilton pursue the possibility of using state-owned land in Wilton for affordable housing:
“There is surplus state land here in terms of the land that was set aside for the extension of Super-7. That hasn’t happened, thankfully. The question is, is there a way to access that land, perhaps free of charge from the state, such that we could build as many as 500 units of affordable housing, get out from under Section 8-30g, and at the same time plan and develop affordable housing in a way that we would like as a community? That would work in both ways, that is good for the community and good for the development of affordable housing.”
Multiple residents (including one who is also a realtor) expressed concern about traffic in Wilton Center if greater density is achieved with multifamily housing, suggesting speed bumps on River Rd. for that reason. They also raised concerns about traffic entering and exiting the development at 141 Danbury Rd.
Another resident expressed concern about Wilton losing its “small town” feel:
“I’ve known Wilton as a town for 30 years. I moved here recently from Norwalk. One of the things I love about Wilton is the ambiance, the environment, the small-town feeling. The last thing I would want to see is density, building up multiple apartment buildings all over and making this a mini-Norwalk. I think it would be a huge mistake not to preserve open space, not to preserve that openness. Protect us from over-densifying,” the resident said.
Similarly, another resident questioned whether Wilton’s rural character would be lost.
“My family moved here from Los Angeles to get away from urban density and for the rural character of this town. Yet all that’s been talked about is how everyone wants density. So my question is, what is being done in the master plan to preserve the rural character?”
Wrinn offered some reassurance.
“No one has a plan to remove any parks, to remove any town forest… what we’re talking about here is creating additional housing types, but that has nothing to do with removing open space that we have,” Wrinn said.
Pickering responded by discussing density in a different way.
“The word density is used a lot, but it’s really not a good description of a place,” he said. “There are areas that are very high density and feel like small villages, and there are areas that are low density and feel totally inhospitable. The devil is really in the details. It’s about how you design it, not just the density itself… to some extent, if you concentrate your development in a way that is human scale and aesthetically pleasing, you don’t end up with [high density] in other places.”
Another realtor commented with her support for more housing.
“As a realtor, I hear what people say about moving into different towns, and certainly the school system is one of the drivers. But the other thing that people want — the young people, and the people who are older who don’t want to leave the town — is a vibrant town center. You’re not going to build the restaurants and wait for the people to come. You’re going build the housing, and then the restaurants, the gyms [etc.] will all be there. That is what the young people want, in concert with all this beautiful open space that we’ve been so well in protecting.”
Editor’s Note: This story was corrected to reflect Vanderslice’s intended role was a panelist but not the event’s moderator, as originally reported.