Montessori School Parking plan is back in play

After being remanded by the Connecticut Superior Court, the Wilton Planning and Zoning Commission readdressed the Wilton Montessori School’s plan to build a parking lot on its land at 34 Whipple Road.

Formal consideration of special plan 191E, as the parking lot plan is known, was continued to June 24, at the request of the commission. Joseph P. Williams, counsel for the Montessori school, said he and the school’s board of trustees were interested in continuing dialogue with neighbors about the proposed plan before that meeting to help mitigate concerns.

The Planning and Zoning Commission originally denied a permit for the parking lot, but after a series of lower court rulings and appeals, the Connecticut Superior Court found in favor of the Montessori school, and remanded the issue to the commission. The court said the commission had to allow a parking lot to be built on the school’s land as of April 23.

Acting commission Chairman Michael Rudolph noted for the record the public hearing had a very strict purpose, as the Connecticut Superior Court gave the commission very specific abilities to control the school’s plan. The commission could not refuse to grant the school a permit for the creation of a parking lot, but could address aspects of the parking lot plan including, but not limited to:

• signage and pavement markers;

• blockage of 13 parking spaces on Whipple Road;

• waiver and/or reduction of the landscaped buffer requirements;

• relocation of the new parking lot;

• modification and/or reduction of the three landscaped buffer requirements;

• modification and/or relocation of the new parking lot curb cut.

According to the Montessori school, this parking lot will primarily be used for daytime staff parking, and will be used for schoolwide events approximately four times per year. It will sit to the west of the current school building, and provide an additional 37 parking spaces.

At the request of the board, the Montessori school board of trustees, its counsel, its representing engineer Holt McChord, and landscape architect Kate Throckmorton presented two plans for the parking lot: ‘plan A’ and ‘alternate B.’

Plan A is the original plan preferred by the school, which would require a waiver because the parking lot and driveway would not meet the 50-foot setback requirement from the westerly property border. A six-foot fence would line the Montessori school’s property line, and vegetation would be planted to minimize the effect of light escaping to the road, and into the lot to the west.

Alternate B conforms to the 50-foot setback requirement, but requires the removal of 11 mature trees, said Mr. McChord and Ms. Throckmorton. This plan, according to the Montessori team, would make the parking lot, and lighting more visible from the road.

Neighbors in attendance said that they were in favor of neither plan A, nor alternative B.

Susan Russel, of 44 Erdman Lane, said there are many issues that must be addressed before any plan moves forward.

“We need to put in the gate, put in the screening for Sari, we need to deal with the light, we need to figure out the shrubs, and we need to stop people from parking on the island,” she said.

Sari Weatherwax, of 19 Whipple Road, said this was a very personal issue for area property owners, though they accept that they ultimately lost the fight to stop the parking lot expansion.

“Because of the grade” from the parking lot to the road, “the lights in the parking lot are actually 22 feet tall,” she said. “It is not true that those lights will not be seen. According to one area [real estate] agent, our property values will decline by $40,000 per house. If I could move, I would.”

Many neighbors spoke in support of a parking lot layout plan presented by Philip Goiran, of 23 Whipple Road.

Mr. Goiran’s plan would provide 40 extra parking spaces for the Montessori school, while removing the need for a third, 6,000-square-foot driveway to be installed.

Mr. Goiran appeared at the Planning and Zoning Commission’s May 13 meeting and spoke informally about the project. He argued that the addition of a third driveway would have a minimal impact on reducing traffic congestion, because it would lead to a staff parking lot. Staff generally arrive before, and leave after the times during which traffic congestion is the worst, he said.

He also noted on June 10 that he believes the school’s board of trustees is more inclined to save buffer trees between the school building and the proposed parking lot than to develop a plan that properly limits the impact on its neighbor’s property.

“All I ask [the school] is to please limit the impact on our neighborhood. I don’t think that is a very difficult, or an overbearing thing, to ask from a neighbor,” he said.

During the meeting, Mr. Williams noted that Mr. Goiran’s plan was fully inspected by the school’s board of trustees, but was found to be incompatible with the school’s needs.

Mr. McChord, the school’s engineer, said the planning of this parking lot is a “puzzle,” with no single solution.

“This is more than just trees, this is a puzzle. We’ve got a parking area, we’ve got a driveway, we’ve got septic, and we’ve got an owner’s desire. All of those things have to make sense.”

If Mr. Goiran’s plan was utilized, he said, the proximity of a well north of the planned lot would not allow for an emergency septic system required by law.

“We can keep talking about the trees here,” he said, “but that’s also where the septic goes in the case of a failure.”

Barbara Valk, of 43 Whipple Road, addressed the need for the Montessori school plan to include a feature to deter school visitors from parking on Whipple Road, and in non-parking areas of the school’s driveway.

She said people are naturally inclined to park as close to the school building as possible when they are leading small children across a parking lot, which leads them to park in non-parking areas.

She also stressed the need for a better traffic management strategy to be employed by the school.

Ms. Russel said she hopes her neighbors understand that everyone is working to reach an amicable solution to this problem.

“We had a very nice meeting at the school. We talked about our main concerns, and I think the school is trying to address them, the gate, and the lighting,” she said.

However, she also said that no one is going to be completely happy with the eventual plan.

“None of us can stand here and offer a solution so that everyone is 100% happy. We’re now pitting neighbor against neighbor, and that’s not fair. If it has to go in, we need to control impact as much as we can. We made some progress when we met from the school, and I hope that can continue moving forward.”