Montessori decision in, board will review

A recent court decision gave the green light to Montessori School’s long-awaited plan to expand its parking lot, an effort the Planning & Zoning Commission has opposed for years.

At the P &Z’s meeting on Monday night, April 8, board members discussed how best to handle its rejected motion of appeal against Montessori, and will postpone the item to May 13, giving board members ample time to review the judge’s decision, which is roughly 50 pages, according to Michael Rudolph, vice chairman of the commission.

In 2010, Montessori School on Whipple Road applied to increase its enrollment from 230 to 270 students and build a parking lot on adjacent property it purchased in 2000.

The public voiced dissatisfaction with the proposal, and the Planning & Zoning Commission denied the school’s request.

The school then filed an appeal under state statutes, and once final arguments were completed in early February 2012, Judge Kevin Tierney of Stamford’s Superior Court ruled in favor of the expansion request.

In May 2012, the Planning & Zoning Commission voted unanimously to file a motion for reconsideration, and obtained a certificate to appeal the Superior Court’s decision to allow the school to expand its parking lot and increase enrollment.

Wilton’s motion to reargue the Montessori School lawsuit was heard by Judge Tierney in Stamford on Sept. 13, 2012, and his ruling was first publicly discussed at Monday night’s meeting.

Since 2010, the town has expressed neighborhood and traffic concerns that hiked enrollment may imply.

Many homeowners from the surrounding properties attended the public hearing held in January 2010 to voice their concerns that more students would mean more cars, unsafe roads, noise, and a decrease in privacy.

Some argued the school had “expansionist policies,” but John Owen, a trustee at the school, dismissed these complaints.

“Properties have gone on the market that the school hasn’t bought,” he said. “Realistically, we don’t have that much room to expand.”

For many of the proposal’s opponents, however, traffic was the biggest concern.

Commissioner Marilyn Gould, in 2010, said the increase of students would hurt the integrity of the surrounding neighborhood, and said of her initial decision, “I believe the impact on the community would be too great because of the increased amount of traffic. This school can’t continue to inflict greater burdens on the neighborhood on a dead-end road.”

“We feel the judge erred in his decision,” said Town Planner Robert Nerney of the ruling in 2011, adding  the commission stands by its 2010 decision because the “reasons outlined in the original denial remain valid.”

These reasons include traffic concerns and the worry that a larger parking lot and increased enrollment would compromise the integrity of the neighborhood.

Steven Kranzlin, vice president of the Grumman Hill Montessori Association of Trustees, said in 2012 that he and the school were pleased with the judge’s decision, but remain “happy to work with Planning & Zoning” moving forward.

“We are very concerned about disturbing the lay of the land,” said Mr. Kranzlin, emphasizing the school’s wish to preserve the many old growth trees on the front of its property.

According to Mr. Kranzlin, the school appealed on the grounds it was not given a chance to complete its presentation or respond to complaints from neighbors.

“We felt we didn’t get a fair hearing. We worked very hard, and had factual evidence that we were in compliance with regulations,” he said, “and the judge agreed.”

To address traffic concerns, the school hired a traffic expert to analyze the existing parking situation and the surrounding roads. The expert later told the commission the addition of 40 students “showed insignificant change in traffic” on Whipple Road, while Grumman Hill Road would remain at its current service level.

Mr. Kranzlin had said the larger parking lot would eliminate parking on the side of the road, which has been an issue in the past.

The next Planning & Zoning meeting will be held on April 22 in the town hall annex at 7:15 p.m. The May 13 meeting will be held at the same time and location.