'Marilyn's Regulation' broadens rules on adaptive use properties

An alteration to the town’s long-standing adaptive use regulations was passed at the Monday, Oct. 14, meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission.

Owners of historic residential buildings on the Route 7 corridor used for commercial purposes may now increase the size of their building by 50% of its original floor plan so long as the new construction is along the original plane of the building and conforms to the building’s architectural feel. For example, if a building is 10 feet from the front property line, an addition may be no closer. New additions are not required to conform to setback standards.

As the regulations stood, owners were allowed to increase their building’s size by 10% and only for bathroom or handicapped-accessibility compliance. The commission will now hear arguments from owners who wish to put in asphalt driveways, as well.

The change “allows property owners to pursue new construction with a strong emphasis placed on the architecture,” Town Planner Bob Nerney said, and “shifts the process from a draconian way of looking at it through 100-foot setbacks, and 40-feet-from-the-side-yard setbacks … because that test is not legally easy.”

REG#13340 is endearingly referred to as Marilyn’s Regulation, after Commissioner Marilyn Gould, the author of the regulation changes. Ms. Gould was also involved in writing the original adaptive use regulations in the 1970s, Mr. Nerney said.

“In the 1970s, the town recognized that most of the homes [on Route 7] were old, historic homes, and that there was an emerging concern at the time that many of those homes would eventually be torn down. There was a desire to come in and rezone the property to commercial, but when you rezone, you really don’t have the ability to review the projects from an architectural perspective, especially back in the 1970s,” he said.

So town planning leaders like Ms. Gould decided to take a different approach to the preservation of Wilton’s historic Route 7 corridor. Rather than relinquishing control of its charm and character to commercial zoning, they enacted a series of regulations that would prevent owners from drastically changing Route 7 homes.

Adaptive use regulations allowed homeowners to convert their large homes into areas proper for commercial and office-type space. Businesses on Route 7 such as Polito Construction and Canine Fencing are examples of those whose homes take advantage of these regulations.

The 1970s regulations granted “relief to many residential property owners in a measured way that allowed for higher and better use from an economic perspective, but in a way that protects the heritage of the corridor. It worked well over the years,” Mr. Nerney said.

He said regulations enacted by early leaders with “foresight,” like Ms. Gould, are an excellent aspect of the town’s overall planning policies.

“Route 7 actually begins in Norwalk and ends at the Canadian border,” he said. “This is a great way to protect a unique road with a lot of history. It’s where a lot of communities are settled, and it is really good that Wilton is doing its best to balance the need to provide services, to be sensitive to the needs of the business community, but to do so in a way that doesn’t create problems in the future.”

Regardless of the rule’s effectiveness over the past 40 years, town leaders have recognized that changing times call for changing regulations, Mr. Nerney said.

“In recent years, the conclusion of many is that most of the properties are at full occupancy. In terms of the interior special needs, many businesses have outgrown their physical parameters. Under the old regulation, when you change to a light commercial use, you could not physically expand the building except for code-related purposes or bathroom facilities. It was very, very limiting.”

Wilton land owners did have the option to relocate an existing Wilton historic structure to their property, but over time possible buildings have grown fewer and fewer in number.

“You could come in and transport a historic building and re-establish it on the property, but it had to be a Wilton building. You could relocate it assuming all other zoning parameters had been met. A lot of that happened, but really not a lot of those buildings are left,” Mr. Nerney said.

With this change, building owners will be allowed to increase the size of their building substantially.

“Construction is limited to 50% of the floor area of existing buildings,” the town planner said, “so a 2,000-square-foot business building could be increased to 3,000 square feet assuming parking is satisfactory.”

More importantly, Mr. Nerney said, is that this regulation change allows the planning commission and area business owners more open ability to discuss changes to the Route 7 corridor.

“This allows for more meaningful dialogue between property owners and the commission,” he said. “The commission is sensitive to the fact that many properties have outgrown current area requirements. The last thing anyone wants to see is businesses packing up, leaving an empty non-functional property.”

All in all, Mr. Nerney said, Wilton’s ability to balance the different entities vying for control of the Route 7 corridor has been nothing but unique.

“The plan for Route 7 was a very novel approach to adaptive use” when Marilyn Gould helped write the original regulations in the 1970s, he said. “The fact that it was established beforehand” was especially important. “Unfortunately, in a lot of communities,” he said, “regulations come into place after the fact. That wasn’t the case in Wilton, with due credit given to those who had the foresight to be proactive as opposed to reactive.”