Lighting issue intensifies on two fronts
The battle over lighting at Middlebrook School will now take place within the chambers of two of Wilton’s elected commissions. In addition to the Planning & Zoning Commission proceedings to be continued on Tuesday, a previous variance for 70-foot stadium lights at Middlebrook School has been remanded to the Zoning Board of Appeals for further review.
A Planning & Zoning Commission public hearing regarding changes to the town’s athletic field lighting regulations will continue on Tuesday, Nov. 12, at 7:15 p.m. at the Cider Mill School cafeteria.
Per state statute, town planner Bob Nerney said, a public hearing may continue for up to 35 days. The subsequent meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission is scheduled for Nov. 25, and falls within that time frame should the commissioners choose to continue the hearing.
Zoning Board of Appeals
The Wilton Zoning Board of Appeals has been ordered to review a variance it issued in 2012 regarding 70-foot stadium lights at the Middlebrook field. This variance had been challenged by Anthony F. LoFrisco and four additional Wilton residents in Connecticut Superior Court.
The plaintiff’s attorney, Paul Sobel, of Green & Gross, said the judge in this case “upheld LoFrisco’s appeal, and sent the matter back to ZBA for the ZBA to restate their reason for granting the variance in an acceptable manner, and to make the findings they are required to make under the zoning regulations.”
According to Mr. Sobel, the judge remanded the case back to the ZBA because he could not understand “the reason they supported the variance … he couldn’t review it because he didn’t understand the resolution.”
This was only a half-victory for Mr. Sobel’s client, as he and Mr. LoFrisco had initially challenged the variance on more substantial grounds. The suit originally claimed the ZBA approved the variance in the absence of a legally recognizable “unusual hardship.”
According to ZBA guidelines, a variance may be granted only if an applicant demonstrates “that the unusual size, shape or topography of your lot or other unusual physical conditions relating to your lot or any building on it, make it impossible for Wilton to strictly apply a specific provision of its regulations (i.e., setback requirements) to your lot without it resulting in exceptional difficulty or unusual hardship.”
According to the complaint, the Wilton ZBA by a four-to-one vote on April 16, 2012, granted the variance on the grounds that light pollution from the existing 30-foot lights would be mitigated and the need for this type of lighting was not anticipated when zoning regulations were drafted with commercial uses in mind as opposed to sports venues.
In a statement issued by Mr. LoFrisco in 2012, he said: “It is hard to imagine a Zoning Board of Appeals departing more radically from its legal constraints than this one. If this were merely a matter of hypertechnical interpretation of the word ‘hardship’ there would be no reason to get terribly upset and certainly no reason to bring suit against the Town of Wilton. But what is at stake here is whether the Zoning Board of Appeals should be allowed to violate the law in a way that will contribute to the deterioration of a two-acre residential zone.”
Mr. Sobel said he and his client felt “no matter how the ZBA restates its reason, it wouldn’t be an acceptable reason to grant a variance. We felt that the judge should have just sustained the appeal without sending it back to ZBA.”
In order to prevent the judge from remanding the case back to ZBA, Mr. LoFrisco asked the Connecticut Appellate Court to review the decision.
“The purpose of us asking for further review,” he said, “is that we thought the procedure of having it sent back, and having to appeal it again, was unnecessary.”
Their request for consideration was denied on Oct. 16.
Planning & Zoning
At Tuesday’s public hearing at the Cider Mill School, members of the public with an opinion on the proposed change will be invited to give testimony to the Planning & Zoning Commission, which will have the final say on the matter.
If the public hearing is continued again, it will be continued until Nov. 25. In order for the hearing to be once again extended past that date, it would be at the specific request of the applicant — as he is the only party with power to request an extension up to 65 additional days.
The public hearing Nov. 12 will not take place in the town hall annex, where the commission usually meets, as previous hearings have regularly drawn crowds of 100-plus in the past month.
The proposed change, known formally as REG#13342, was submitted by Eric Dean of Wilton last month after a previous application submitted by the Gregory and Adams law firm was withdrawn because of a technical error.
The debate over the application has grown contentious at points between those who hope to renovate the lights and turf at the Middlebrook School field and those who seek to “preserve Wilton’s character.” Although proponents of the lighting amendment have regularly brought up the issue of a turf field being installed at Middlebrook as well, this regulation deals only with lights and is not site-specific to Middlebrook. It would be applicable to any athletic field at a school on town-owned property.
Residents may also have their opinion heard by the commission by sending an email to the commission (firstname.lastname@example.org) or a letter in care of the Planning & Zoning Department, Town Hall Annex, 238 Danbury Road, Wilton CT 06897.
Though Town Planner Bob Nerney says the commission does not keep a running tally of the number of letters in favor of or opposed to any application, the commission does take into account each letter’s substantive arguments.