Wilton officials pledge funds to support master plan

WILTON — The Board of Selectmen expressed support—and pledged $100,000 this year—to begin creation of a Master Plan for Planning and Zoning.

P&Z Commission Chairman Richard Tomasetti and Michael Wrinn, director of planning & land use manager, and town planner, gave a successful pitch to the board Tuesday night, expressing an urgent belief that Wilton needs to address its outdated zoning regulations and prepare better for future development.

“We’ve got some real issues in our commercial zones,” said Tomasetti, noting the zoning inconsistencies along Route 7, which Wrinn said in some instances could potentially open the town to lawsuits.

“I think of this as an investment in the town, much like any other investment we make,” said Selectman Joshua Cole. “I think we’re going to be well-served for many, many years to come if we do this in the right way right out of the gate.”

The project is likely to unfold over the next five years, beginning with a focus on Wilton Center, then proceeding to include Cannondale, Danbury Road, Georgetown, and the south end of Route 7, a.k.a., Gateway.

Wrinn was asked to come back to the board with firmer numbers for next fiscal year and beyond, but he already estimated close to $250,000 in costs for consultants to draw up plans and to rework zoning regulations for the Wilton Center area alone.

First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice said the $100,000 was already set aside in this current budget for capital items.

The Plan of Conservation & Development, Tomasetti said, “specifically tells us that we should do master planning, and specifically it talks about master planning in the commercial areas, specifically Wilton Center.”

The POCD was just adopted Oct. 1, 2019, and while he said the intention at that time was to seek funding to move forward with a master plan, the pandemic put that on hold because it was felt the money wouldn’t be available.

Consequently, the P&Z Commission formed a subcommittee and made a valiant attempt to engage in the work on its own.

“We gave it the old college try (but) we concluded we were not capable of doing it,” Tomasetti said, after several meetings and examination of various data.

The good news, however, was that the commission identified a range of issues that demand focus, he said, thus giving consultants a head start.

“This is a real necessity for us to do and we’re thinking broad … We’ve got a lot of work to do here and it’s not just Wilton Center,” he said.

“The reality is we are a growth model,” he said. “It’s just that simple, and if we’re not growing, we are dying.”

Toward that end, Tomasetti said, there are currently not enough people to support the amount of retail in Wilton, with some of the amenities enjoyed by neighboring communities—Long Island Sound and the main railroad line among them—not here to draw more visitors or new residents.

Both Tomasetti and Wrinn noted there was a fine line between developing additional residential opportunities, however—some in relation to state requirements centered on the affordable housing statute 8-30g—and keeping the character of the town intact.

Also, questions surround a large amount of office space, which could possibly be rezoned for multiple use in some cases, including residential.

“We have all sorts of issues trying to figure out what are we going to do with the unused office space,” Wrinn said.

While he said it wasn’t a unique problem—particularly in 2020—it needs to be addressed.

“In a nutshell, we’ve got a lot of planning to do,” he said.

Tomasetti said that many of the new applications that have come before his commission include requests to make zoning changes—something he and Wrinn see as a red flag.

“Our regulations aren’t working for the owners and developers coming in,” he said.

Along with giving clarity to what the goal is for Wilton Center, Wrinn said issues like density, building height and building form need to be addressed in regulations in order for the town to keep a say in development.

“You don’t want to have something that is at odds with what you have there today,” he said.

He described the plan as a public process that would include “many opportunities for the public to interact,” with the recent work on the POCD helping to motivate discussion.

“It’s a terrible task, to be honest with you,” he said of rewriting the zoning regulations, and would necessitate a lot of back and forth between the town, consultants and property owners.

“But I think it’s really a piece that needs to be done,” he said.

Selectman Deb McFadden said that since Covid has “shifted the landscape,” the timing is perfect for this work.

She stressed that whichever consultant be engaged not be someone who is going to use a “cookie cutter” approach, but instead be familiar with the unique nature and needs of Wilton and create a plan that fits it.

Selectman Ross Tartell noted that, if done properly, this work could achieve an important balance between local autonomy and state mandates.

“A lot of this is not just a technical exercise, it’s a policy exercise,” he said, commending the P&Z for at least attempting to address the work on a volunteer basis.

“And also, thank you for being realistic about it,” he said.

“This is a lot of work,” Tomasetti said. “It takes a big commitment and it takes a big commitment over multiple years.”