Some residents against Planning & Zoning proposals

The Darien Planning & Zoning Commission recently continued its public hearing from March 19 regarding amendments to the town’s business and office zone regulations and zoning map.

At the hearing, town planning consultant Glenn Chalder from Planimetrics gave a presentation on Darien zoning regulations and possible changes to business zones.

The proposed amendments involve consolidating and combining existing zoning districts within the town’s business and office zones.

The amendments include creating new restaurant categories that wouldn’t limit or restrict indoor seating, establishing policy for drive-through uses, and allowing for three-story buildings within the town’s new office zone.

One of six zone changes being proposed as part of these amendments involves rezoning 273 West Avenue from commercial to residential.

“There are two properties which are combined in ownership, which are in the business district but they’re used residentially,” Chalder said. “If you were to try to access West Avenue with a commercial use, it could be challenging, so the suggestion for the commission’s consideration was that those be placed in the residential district.”

The property owner, Holly Weatherby, said she would like to keep the property zoned as it is. “This would preserve any opportunity we have for sale of all or part of the property to an adjacent land owner.”

Attorney Robert Maslan, who represents clients at West Avenue, argued in favor of the Planning & Zoning proposal to eliminate the minimum of 1,200 square feet of customer seating and dining areas in restaurants.

He said the 1,200 requirement was the result of an “evolution in the fast food industry.”

In order to have fast food places where there is dine in, the town had put in the 1,200-square-foot requirement, which “ensured you had a larger dining area,” he said.

He said the 1,200-square-foot requirement is now “obsolete” and “ought to be eliminated.”

Darien resident Aldo Criscuolo, the owner of Heights Pizza, said the 1,200-square-foot size restriction requirement is “backwards.”

He compared Heights Pizza — which doesn’t have dine in – to Papa Joe’s, which has dine in, and said there are more cars in the parking lot on any given evening at Papa Joe’s than at Heights Pizza.

“People go in the evening. It’s more intense use in the evening, having the 1,200-square-foot dine in,” he said.

Another resident, Joe Balzano, said what concerns him is not the local business owner, like Aldo of Heights pizza, but instead it’s “places like Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway, who don’t care. The guys own four or five franchises … In and out. In and out.”

“I don’t think West Avenue could really sustain that kind of business, coming in and out of those places,” Balzano added.

Zoning map amendment

Another amendment would place the Municipal Use (MU) overlay zone on 13 properties in town, which would allow for the potential for greater flexibility in future development regarding any possible additions or redevelopment, according to Planning & Zoning.

The 13 properties in question include Town Hall, the three town fire departments, Darien High School and the Board of Education office building.

According to Planning & Zoning Director Jeremy Ginsberg, the municipal use overlay zone was originally established in 2006 and used by the Darien Library for its construction. It allowed for a larger building, more stories and more height.

It was also used for additions to the police department on Hecker Avenue, and to allow a full three-story structure at Old Town Hall Homes.

“Many of these properties are in a residential zone, which usually has houses that have two-and-a-half stories,” Ginsberg said. “This gives them a little more flexibility.”

He said when the high school was constructed and the middle school was expanded, they both exceeded the building height since they were three-story additions. They both needed variances, which involved a hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals.

“It’s difficult to obtain a variance,” Ginsberg said.

This proposal would allow for this option for the 13 properties up front, all at once — as opposed to as they come up.

Planning & Zoning Chairman John Sini said he finds this “very valuable to both neighboring property owners as well as the town.”

During public comment, however, many people expressed concern with this proposal.

One resident, who lives right next to the Noroton Firehouse, said if “you grant this to that property, it would have a definite impact on the value of my home and my pleasure in living there.”

He said it took three years for him to reach a prior agreement with the fire department in relation to a buffer zone.

“As a neighbor with a very small, unique property … to grant just a complete access to be able to eliminate these requirements is very scary,” he said.

In response, Sini said the proposal “doesn’t give the fire department carte blanche to eliminate screening. They would have to come back with a proposal to change the site.”

Another resident, who lives on Middlesex Road, is also concerned with the proposal. “When something says we give the town more flexibility, the flip side of that is that it has to come at the expense of protection to some extent of property owners in the area.”

He further said the current method “seems to be working so let’s keep what’s working and not just create this flexibility in what are much more densely residential zones.”

The next Planning & Zoning public hearing on this topic will be May 14 at 8 p.m. in Room 206 at Town Hall.

The full text of the proposed zoning regulation and zoning map amendments are available in the town clerk’s office and the planning office for inspection, and online at darienct.gov/pzc.

sfox@darientimes.com