For Darien’s Planning & Zoning Commission, 2016 was a year focused on looking towards the future. The commission was asked to consider major zoning changes in two of the town’s core business areas and updated a new town plan, mapping their vision for the next decade.
Baywater Properties proposed a set of zoning changes for an 11.2 acre portion of downtown Darien along Post Road and Corbin Drive as a part of a redevelopment project that would install several mixed-use buildings for retail stores, restaurants and apartments. Palmer’s Market and Federal Realty submitted a joint application for zoning changes in the area of Noroton Heights with the intention of bringing mixed-use housing to that neighborhood as well.
In both cases, the applicants requested buildings beyond the height of their zone regulations. In both cases, the Planning & Zoning Commission asked the applicants to lower their proposed building heights. The Noroton Heights changes were ultimately approved with a building height of three stories and 45 feet, matching the maximum in other areas of town. Baywater opted to withdraw its application in the fall after several months of deliberation, public hearings and information sessions.
The original application submitted by Baywater included more than 60 apartments, 90,000 square feet of office space and 70,000 square feet of retail space spread across several buildings. Those buildings were designed to vary in height starting at three stories, with the largest going up to six stories and 95 feet. A village green was also proposed along Post Road, along with new through streets and underground parking to alleviate new and existing traffic concerns in the area.
Baywater claimed that the building heights were non-intrusive by design and the largest buildings would be staged against I-95, outside the view of pedestrians on Post Road. The Planning & Zoning Commission said the steep increase in building heights downtown would not conform with the town plan, despite being generally supportive of the project’s goals.
All decisions delivered by the Planning & Zoning Commission must be consistent with the Town Plan of Conservation and Development, which is updated every 10 years as mandated by the state. The Commission approved an update to the town plan in June of 2016, after more than a year of aggregating information and deliberation.
One of the central tenets of the town plan includes preserving the character of the town, which some residents believe may be compromised by the incoming developments. Baywater Principal David Genovese said bringing the project to this point has taken more than a decade of work, and he has gone to great lengths to maintain the public’s interests, holding both private and public information sessions and organizing social media campaigns.
The public voiced its support to the Planning & Zoning Commission, perhaps too strongly at times, during the hearing and deliberation process. Commissioners were bombarded with hundreds of emails from supporters of the project after public hearings on the zoning changes closed, some of which were directed at their private addresses. The commission is prohibited from reviewing those emails after public hearings have closed, but they were held by the town’s Planning & Zoning Department.
Commissioner Richard DiDonna went on to resign from the commission during the deliberation process. Commissioner John Sini, who took over as chairman of the commission last month for Susan Cameron, said the commission had made its opinion on the building heights clear from the start. While the town plan does identify the need for redevelopment downtown, Sini said the commission asked the applicant to tone down the building heights during a discussion in 2015.
Baywater has since resubmitted its application, which requests a maximum building height of five stories and 75 feet, a reduction of 20 feet from the initial application. The heights of the other buildings included in the project have been adjusted as well to compensate for the newly proposed maximum. Though the application is restarting the Planning & Zoning approval process, the public comments and deliberations from the first are included as a part of the record.
Public hearings for Baywater’s revised applications will begin during the Planning & Zoning Commission’s Jan. 10 meeting.