Planning and Zoning candidates face off at library

About 70 citizens attended the League of Women Voters debate for nine candidates for Planning and Zoning Commission Oct. 18 in Wilton Library’s Brubeck Room, but many of them had a question that nobody was allowed to answer.

Many members of the audience reportedly wanted to ask about the Age-Restricted Housing District overlay proposed by developer James Fieber for 183 Ridgefield Road, but despite being the elephant in the room, nobody could touch that question.

“Since this is an application that members of the Planning and Zoning Commission will be required to act on, it is not appropriate to answer such a specific question,” said Jean Rabinow of Trumbull, the League of Women Voters moderator for the evening.

So the crafty audience found creative ways to repose the question, hoping to get some sense on where the planning and zoning candidates stand on issues like age-restricted housing, scenic roads and development, and affordable housing.

All of the candidates participated. They were Democrat Eric Fanwick, who previously served on the Zoning Board of Appeals for five years and has served on the Water Pollution Control Authority for seven years; Democrat Doris Knapp, who currently serves on the Planning and Zoning Commission; Republican Peter Shiue, a current member of the Planning and Zoning Commission; Republican Sally Poundstone, current member and former chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, former chairman of Zoning Board of Appeals; Republican Christopher Pagliaro, former member of the Building inspector's Board of Appeals and Counsel on Public Facilities; and Unaffiliated Petitioner Melissa-Jean Rotini, a current member of the Planning and Zoning Commission. These six are seeking five open four-year seats on the commission.

There are also three candidates who are uncontested for three two-year terms on the commission. They are Republican Richard Tomasetti, a current member of the Planning and Zoning Commission; Basam Nabulsi, a former member of the Planning and Zoning Commission; and Rotarian Matthew Murphy.

It was not so much a debate as a question-and-answer session with questions from the audience.

One of the first questions of the evening was whether the Plan of Conservation and Development’s characterization of Wilton as semi-rural is appropriate for the next 10 years. This question was prompted by the fact that the commission will be working on a 10-year update to the document to carry Wilton forward into the next decade.

Fanwick: “Yes, we are a rural town, but we have that with commercial development. Our commercial area is much more spread out. There’s also a large shift in the way retailers are zoned.”

Knapp: “We are semi-rural but we need to grow. We need to grow commercially, as well as our residential base. We need to make Wilton attractive to people with children, without children, people of all ages. These are some of the issues the Plan of Conservation and Development will deal with. It’s important to the future to get it right.”

Shiue: “That’s the million-dollar question. A lot of longtime residents would like to see the semi-rural aspect of town remain as it was. If we retain the semi-rural character without focusing on future commercial development we’re not going to cope with the pressures we have. On one hand, I respect the notion to keep the character of Wilton what it’s been, but on the other hand it’s important to face reality, but to do it in a responsible manner.”

Poundstone: “We want to maintain and balance the Wilton we all see with the coming changes we see in technology and retailing. There are so many things coming upon this community. Yes, we are going to put every

effort as board members to work on a new Plan of Conservation and Development. In the meantime, there are many applications in the months before the new plan is approved. Any member of Planning and Zoning must be very aware of the amount of effort that goes into hearing our community, with concerns about taxes and uncertainties about economics in our state and community.”

Pagliaro: “Yes, I consider Wilton to be a semi-rural community. We can’t be so afraid of history we’re afraid to make it. We need to find places for things that bother us as a community. Let’s find a place for the things we’re always trying to fight. Let’s have a plan for them. A community needs diversity in the types of housing. We have a new generation of buyer coming next. How do we attract them? It might mean housing of different scales.”

Rotini: ”Yes, it is appropriate because that’s what we are. What really needs to happen here is we need to know from the public if that’s what we need to be. The Plan of Conservation and Development we have was started before the 2008 crash. That’s what people wanted then, but what does the town want now? It’s for you to tell me and for me to follow the instructions. A lot of ideas are great like mixed enclaves and walkable apartments, but is that what the town wants?”

Another question was about how to deal with the state’s  8-30g affordable housing mandate.

Fanwick: “The real problem with the statute is sometimes builders use it as a cudgel to get what they want. As much as I’d like to say Planning and Zoning can affect this, they really have very little power. Maybe we need to speak to our legislature.”

Knapp: “There is a moratorium at the present time on affordable housing applications and we need a little breathing room as to how we’ll be able to do this. When a builder comes in they have the upper hand, and that’s unfortunate, but we have the opportunity now because we have the moratorium to revisit this and think it out and figure what is best for the town with the knowledge we do need to include affordable housing. It’s unfortunate that many of our affordable units have aged out and come to the end of their affordability. We need to look for more affordable housing and look for opportunities.”

Shiue: “I have to admit every time a housing development is proposed in town, in the back of my mind, I know if you don’t approve something, the developer could go ahead and construct a high-density affordable housing complex. The only way to handle a situation like this, but it’s next to impossible to hit the 10% affordable housing threshold. When there’s an opportunity to integrate affordable housing in a development we need to push as much as we can, at least make the effort.”

Poundstone: “Sadly, we just have to live with the state law, everyone here has made that point. Wilton has made real positive steps in recent years to include affordable housing in many places. It’s true some of our affordable housing from 20 years ago has aged out. We face the reality that some of what we have will be free-market priced now or shortly. Many efforts have been made at the state level to change that law. Nothing seems to happen. We have to find ways to deal with the reality of that law while we hopefully encourage state legislators to revisit that law.”

Pagliaro: “I remember when this came down in other states. The problem is the threat that is used against the town and land-use boards for approvals for other things. Let’s respond first, and find the right spots for these things. There are ways to be creative resolving this rather than having them in places we prefer not to.”

Rotini: “How to handle 8-30g, it is unfortunate. I agree with my neighbors the proper way to handle it is to plan for it. Look at the regulations that have a mandate percentage for high-density units. These are planning functions.”

One of the final questions of the evening was how to ensure the public has a voice in economic growth.

Many answered that residents need to show up and speak at meetings.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7. Polling places will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.