View from Glen Hill: ‘Gateway to Wilton’ offers much food for thought

The announcement of plans for a new development at 300 Danbury Road near Town Center has occasioned very active public comment, much of it favorable, at relevant town board meetings being held for preliminary review of the plans and their impact. This proposed development encompasses 7.4 acres including land where at present there are three single-family homes.

The development is called Wilton Heights, and its location near the train station should make it particularly attractive to commuters. It also has units of a size designed to serve individual occupants and smaller families, and so it is potentially very attractive to younger families and singles.

Its 74 proposed apartment units — on a large scale, almost three-quarters the size of the Avalon rental unit complex opposite Ring’s End, further south along Route 7 — will also add significantly to the percentage of rental housing available in town. In addition, room on the ground floor is planned for up to 15 retail businesses.

To undertake this project, the developer needs a zoning change on one part of the property (at 3, 7 and 11 Whitewood Lane) from Residential One Acre (R-1A) to Wilton Center Development (WC) zoning. The developer also seeks modification of the WC requirements on both setback and height (up to 46 feet — three and one-half stories — four feet higher than the current WC height limit). The developer has presented his vision as one for this project to be a gateway into Wilton Center. The development follows a common pattern in development these days of mixed residential apartment and small-scale retail business uses. The belief among land-use experts is that the combination of the two provides for a more robust development even as it also enhances the local economy by effectively integrating residential areas with small-business service providers to those residents and, of course, to others across the community.

Younger families seem to prefer quick access to public transportation, and the train station offers that and especially so if service on the Danbury line is expanded and upgraded. They are also said to have a marked preference for proximity to shops and a vibrant downtown, and this development offers that as well, especially once the new pedestrian bridge is installed across the Norwalk River from the train station to downtown.

As I discussed in my previous column this month, there is real need for Wilton to be considering as part of its POCD process — as well as more generally -— how it can welcome to our town more diversity in income, ethnicity and age. Developments like Wilton Heights can enhance that process and in so doing serve a very useful public purpose.

The Wilton Heights developer has also asserted in public that he has broader plans for proposed development from 300 Danbury Road all the way down to Orem’s Diner, and it would be interesting to have him come forward with more specifics with regard to those plans if he is in a position to do so at this point. If part of that planning includes Section 8-30g affordable housing, that could also be a very good thing for our town for the reasons I discussed in my last column. As P&Z Chair Scott Lawrence has pointed out, having a sense of how affordable housing could fit into the whole picture of Route 7 development could be very helpful both generally in connection with this application — in order to put it into a broader perspective — and also as part of the town visioning ongoing now in our town’s well-advancing POCD process.

There is an understandable and very natural tension between wanting things left always as they are in this, our beautifully bucolic town, and moving in new directions. There is certainly strong general sentiment that we need to do all that we can to preserve that which is very special in the beauty of our town — and there is surely much beauty all around us! One good way of doing that is by careful planning with a realistic assessment of what obligations may be imposed on our town in the future under state law and also what as a practical matter needs to be done to attract younger families to us — as all towns need to do for their long-term health.

The result for our town can be very positive in multiple dimensions: new young families arriving, older residents retained, local businesses encouraged to grow, and town vibrancy supported and enhanced. Many win-wins are possible here.