The Monday, Nov. 22 meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission was once again dominated by discussion of the 141 Danbury Rd. and Connecticut Humane Society projects. With the public comment period for both applications now closed, the commissioners presented their thoughts on each development and engaged in a few final debates.
Voting on both proposals is expected to take place at the Monday, Nov. 29 special meeting of P&Z, ahead of the turnover of two seats on the Commission next month.
Chair Rick Tomasetti opened the discussion with a reminder that the three separate applications pertaining to the 173-unit multi-family complex proposed for the former site of the Melissa and Doug corporate office must be considered in order as the success of one affects the prospects of the others.
By far the majority of the discussion concerned the text change to create a new overlay zoning district that will be known as DE-5R, the Designed Enterprise Residential District. On this application, Tomasetti and town planner Michael Wrinn noted the Commission has the greatest degree of discretion about whether to approve or reject.
Commissioner Florence Johnson expressed disappointment in the lack of a mixed-use plan for the site, which will be entirely residential under the current plan. In his later remarks, Tomasetti addressed this issue with a broader statement about mixed-use development.
“Mixed-use isn’t a panacea; we have to be careful about this model. We do not have enough population to support the retail we already have — adding more retail outside of the town center could be problematic,” he said, noting that in the past, the Commission has had to push other similar applicants to limit retail use.
Commissioner Jill Warren raised the topic of affordable housing requirements and whether the regulation change should codify a higher goal than the 10% of affordable units currently offered by the 141 Danbury Rd. plan, even if an exception is made in this case. Commissioners Matthew Murphy and Doris Knapp echoed Warren’s point.
Commissioner Melissa-Jean Rotini responded, “Ten percent gets us somewhere,” and posed that bringing a new multi-family building to a town dominated by single-family homes would itself serve as a driver for diversified housing stock and varied home prices.
Overall, the commissioners expressed support for the project. Commissioner Eric Fanwick called the current site “a godawful ugly building” and said the new development would be a good step forward for the town. Rotini said the project “falls squarely in line with the Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD).”
In closing, the commissioners requested a final change to the overlay text to remove a section about steep-slope provisions that would affect future projects, an issue first flagged by Warren in her remarks.
During the subsequent debate about the zoning change, several commissioners expressed lingering concerns about the lack of a traffic light at the intersection, but acknowledged that the project did not meet state requirements to have one added.
Tomasetti also took issue with feedback from the Architectural Review Board (ARB), which found that the project was out of context with the surrounding area. “Not every site can be a village,” he said, a reference to the ARB’s desire for more of a townhouse-style design. “This Commission has pushed — just as we did at 300 Danbury Rd. and 200 Danbury Rd., to move the dialogue of architecture and design forward. We have to do that across the board.”
Discussion of the Special Permit was tabled due to the need to update the regulation change proposal. Wrinn agreed to prepare final documents for a vote next week.
Later in the evening, the Commission discussed a series of applications submitted by the Connecticut Humane Society for its new headquarters at 863-875 Danbury Rd.
In contrast to the heated debates of the public comment period, the Commission expressed general support for the Humane Society project. “We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” said Commissioner Christopher Pagliaro. “There are lots of dog facilities along [Route] 7.”
Regarding the application for a zoning amendment to increase the allowable floor area given the large size of the parcel being developed, the only changes the Commission proposed were suggested by Rotini and were grammatical in nature. She agreed to send her suggested changes directly to Wrinn.
Warren, Fanwick, and Murphy all praised the applicant for presenting a thorough and compelling analysis of potential noise disturbances. However, several commissioners acknowledged the concerns of neighbors who testified in opposition throughout the process. In particular, they discussed the hours of construction outlined in the application, which are consistent with similar projects that have come through P&Z, but are not expressly outlined by the town.
Johnson questioned the plan to turn off all lighting on the site between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., suggesting a plan for overnight security lighting that the commissioners agreed should be added to the application. These edits, as well as the grammatical changes suggested by Rotini, will be incorporated into the final text for next week’s meeting.
As with 141 Danbury Rd., discussion of the special permit was tabled until language in the regulation change can be finalized. A vote is expected next Monday, Nov. 29.
Finally, Wrinn brought up the issue of the Commission’s growing backlog, suggesting that at least one if not several special meetings will be needed to properly address the current and upcoming applications, as well as the town master planning process. The commissioners agreed to discuss an updated plan for meetings after the new Commission session begins in December, possibly switching permanently to a three-meeting-per-month schedule.