Historic commission concerned about Wilton Heights

On behalf of Wilton’s Historic District and Historic Property Commission, chair Allison Sanders expressed concerns about the proposed Wilton Heights project at 300 Danbury Road during the Planning and Zoning Commission’s Nov. 13 public hearing on Wilton Heights LLC’s special permit application.

Wilton Heights LLC is looking to build retail stores and shops with above-street-level residential apartments at 300 Danbury Road, a property on which two historic structures currently stand: the Betts-Comstock House and the 19th-Century Comstock Corn Crib.

“From the loss of historic structures and the radical reshaping of the landscape, to the overscale height and massing shown on the plan,” Sanders said, the historic commission has found several “troubling aspects to the proposed design.”

As proposed, Wilton Heights LLC’s plans include the demolition of the two historic structures, said Sanders, and their “unnecessary destruction” would “add to the growing list of irrevocable losses of historic structures on Danbury Road.”

“It was very disturbing to read that the site would be razed,” she said. “We have lost so many of our old buildings on Danbury Road. [They are] part of Wilton’s character, and once they’re gone, they’re gone — you can’t get them back.”

The Betts-Comstock house is listed in Wilton’s Historic Resource Inventory and “has stood on its site since it was first built in approximately 1791,” said Sanders. “Why should the town accept the destruction of a local landmark?”

The historic commission is advocating that the project’s developer, Paxton Kinol, “repurpose the Betts-Comstock House on site, and respect the town’s history and landscape,” said Sanders.

Instead of the open-air pavilion shown in the current plans for Wilton Heights, Sanders said, “the original Betts-Comstock House — stripped of its extensive non-historic additions — could be developed as a bookstore, a coffee shop, a virtual workspace, and become an amenity for all.”

If the house can’t be reused on site, she said, “the developer should be a good corporate citizen and seek to preserve it through relocation.” The corn crib, Sanders added, “must also be saved.”

Sanders pointed out that more than 70% of respondents of the Plan of Conservation Development (POCD) team’s June survey said that Wilton’s historic architecture, landscapes, scenic vistas, and character were a “somewhat or very important consideration when deciding to move to or remain in Wilton.”

“This is an important insight into what the town’s residents value, and should be considered in your decisions,” Sanders said at the Planning and Zoning Commission hearing.

As the Connecticut statutes “clearly state,” Sanders said, it’s “incumbent” upon the Planning and Zoning Commission and its Village District Design Advisory Committee to “actively and diligently consider distinctive character, landscape, and historic structures as changes are proposed in a village district.”

“The developer has paid lip service to vernacular design with a pastiche of historical architectural details, but these have been overlaid on structures which will loom over the neighborhood with their blocky height and width,” she said.

“There has not been any serious design consideration given to respecting the current scale of the area, and the substantial changes in the topography, which will negatively transform the character of this historic intersection.”

While Wilton Heights LLC’s plan may uphold the goal of “keeping Wilton Center the ‘cultural, social and business center of the town,’” as outlined in Wilton’s town plan, said Sanders, the planning commission “should not be distracted from other equally important statements and directives in the POCD.”

“The preservation of character, landscape and historic structures is of the utmost urgency,” said Sanders. “They make Wilton visually unique, and help define us as a community. These will be lost with the proposed design for Wilton Heights.”

Sanders said she wants there to be a dialogue between Kinol and the historic commission.

“There’s adaptive use that can be taken up in this case. Let’s have dialogue … about where it could or could not go,” she said. Wilton’s historic structures not only provide scale and texture, but also “a link to our past,” said Sanders, “and that’s what people like.”

“To not acknowledge that people appreciate that piece of our community is short-sighted, I think.”

According to Kinol, there are “four groups in town” who have shown interest in the corn crib.

The Wilton Heights public hearing is scheduled to continue Monday, Nov. 26, in Room A of the town hall annex, beginning at 7:15 p.m.