Did planners err on zoning regulations?

Expecting a larger-than-normal crowd, Monday night’s Planning & Zoning Commission hearing meeting has been moved to the Brubeck Room at Wilton Library. It will start at 7:15.

The main item on the agenda is a public hearing regarding an application to amend the age-restricted zoning regulations and to request a moratorium on age-restricted housing developments until a decision is made on the request, which has been brought by Vicki Mavis, a resident of Ridgefield Road. All interested parties may speak at the hearing.

Controversy over the age-restricted overlay district — known as AROD — after the commission voted to amend established zoning regulations on Nov. 14, 2016, to allow housing developments for residents over age 55. The amendments allow such developments in one- and two-acre residential districts on three main roads — Danbury, Westport and Ridgefield roads — and side roads within 750 feet of one of those three.

Those opposed to the overlay district on Ridgefield Road argue the age-restricted zoning amendments were adopted with little public notice or discussion.

The public hearing was legally noticed in the Bulletin on Nov. 3 and Nov. 10, but the notices only specified the regulations to be amended. There was no mention of specifics such as the roads under consideration for the overlay district.

The public hearing was opened and closed on the same evening — Nov. 14 — and when asked if this was unusual Town Planner Bob Nerney said the commission had been working on the amendments since the spring of 2016.

“In March, an attorney in town approached the commission with a letter asking if they were interested in a discussion with the goal of establishing age-restricted zoning regulations,” he said in a sit-down this week with the Bulletin, adding that although the town has a multi-family district it is not targeted to age restrictions.

With a large part of Wilton’s land holdings zoned for two acres, “it doesn’t comport with the needs of a graying population,” Nerney said of those who may no longer want to mow lawns or plow snow. As in many other towns, the commission saw age-restricted housing as a positive step.

“The commission spent six to seven months looking at options,” Nerney said. There was discussion noted in the minutes of Sept. 26, but they do not specify any of the roads considered for the overlay district.  By November members felt the time was right to move forward. At the public hearing there were no negative comments and no further questions to be answered, thus the hearing was closed.

Why Ridgefield Road? These types of housing developments are typically seen on larger roads, Nerney said, and all three — Danbury Road, Westport Road, and Ridgefield Road — are state highways.

Nerney acknowledged that Ridgefield Road is designated a scenic road, but added the new zoning regulations are not a carte blanche to developers. Changing the zone, as opposed to simply requiring a special permit, gives the commission more discretion, he said.

The steps that must be taken include:

  • Requesting a zone change for a specific property.

  • Requesting a special permit.

  • Submission of a site development plan.

There are provisions within the regulations to allow for consideration of such factors as density, traffic, and screening.

“It allows the commission to look at and analyze each individual request,” Nerney said. “The conditions form the basis for approval, denial or changes. It allows for flexibility to identify a unique characteristic of an area,” he added.

“Are there aspects of an application that diminish the characteristics of a neighborhood? How does the design deal with a scenic highway?” he continued. An application could be approved, denied or amended through dialog.

Developer input

It is no secret developers had input into drafting the regulations, but Nerney insisted policies are made by Wilton’s elected officials. In this case, the Planning and Zoning Commission.

As a civil servant, he said, it is his job to listen to people who come to him with their plans, whether it be a homeowner looking to add a deck or a company with ambitious plans.

“In this instance,the commission had been getting inquiries not only from developers but from Wilton property owners,” he said. First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice met with a company based in Ridgefield.

While the development community can put forward ideas, when asked if they had drafted the regulations he said, “unequivocally, no.”

Nerney said he even recalled there being a suggested approach from developers that was rejected by the commission.

“The regulation that ensued was far more rigorous with regard to zone changes, special permits and allowing for public input,” he said.

But those are not enough protections for those opposed to the inclusion of Ridgefield Road in the overlay district. Among those submitting testimony is Allison Gray Sanders as chairman of the Historic District and Historic Properties Commission who said one of the “town treasures is in danger of being ruined.”

Ridgefield Road, she wrote, is “not a road onto which high-density housing, with attendant increased traffic, noise and discordant scale should begin to creep.  Ridgefield Road is not where spot zoning should be allowed.”

Ridgefield Road is, of course, where the first age-restricted development has been floated, and a request to amend the zone for age-restricted housing at 183 Ridgefield Road has been submitted. That is one of six or so properties throughout town, Nerney estimated, that would be appropriate for such a development, not including lots that could be combined.