Darien’s controversial Parklands project gets special zoning approved as debate continues over size

The office building at 3 Parklands Dr. in Darien, Conn., photographed on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. A plan has been proposed to raze the existing office building and redevelop the property as a multi-family residential.

The office building at 3 Parklands Dr. in Darien, Conn., photographed on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. A plan has been proposed to raze the existing office building and redevelop the property as a multi-family residential.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

DARIEN — Members of the Planning and Zoning commission began deliberations on the controversial Parklands redevelopment project to turn an office building near a nature preserve into a 60-unit residential housing complex.

The plan has garnered much blowback from nearby residents for its density, which they say would negatively impact the environment, increase traffic congestion, bring more children into the school system and look out of place in the quiet residential area.

Residents have expressed those concerns over nine hours of public hearings. During Tuesday’s Planning and Zoning meeting, commissioners had their first chance to publicly express their thoughts about the project.

Commissioners were first tasked with determining whether or not to apply the “Designed Office Multi-Family Residential Overlay Zone” to the project. The DOMR was just approved by the commission in June.

Parklands is effectively the sole project the new overlay zone would apply to. It would permit developers to establish multi-family residential dwellings as a principal use on the property.

While commissioners ultimately approved amending the zoning laws to apply the overlay zone, commissioner Jim Rand questioned whether that was prudent when it is possible the actual redevelopment project might not go forward.

“If ...the apartment project is not approved, for whatever reason, have we shot ourselves in the foot by taking action on the first?” Rand said. “I'm just trying to make sure that we don't foreclose an alternative if the apartment project doesn't go through. I mean, maybe they don't get financing. Maybe the sky falls. I don't know.”

Commissioners also grappled with the size of the building, echoing density concerns from neighbors.

“I'm all for increasing the housing stock. I love that there would be seven new affordable housing units,” said Commissioner George Reilly. “I am very concerned about 60 more units in this space. I just think that that's greater intensity of use than I'm comfortable with at the moment.”

Reilly repeated worries from residents about the number of schoolchildren who could live in the apartments and possible overuse of the nearby Selleck’s and Dunlap Woods.

The nature preserve’s caretakers have said they do not object to the project and do not think it would negatively impact the woods.

Rand said he was principally concerned about the project’s execution if it moves forward. Neighbors have testified that the recently-built senior care facility at the same property — Residences at Selleck’s Woods — brought a host of flooding and construction problems.

Rand suggested there should be more accountability from the commission if Parklands moves forward to ensure that the building is constructed in line with the plans, which project engineers have promised safeguard nearby residents from flooding and other negative effects.

“We've got to have some way of ensuring that when these projects are finished, that the promised outcomes will be delivered,” Rand said. Commission members discussed the idea of a performance bond to guarantee the project is handled correctly.

Commission chair Stephen Olvany said he also did not like how large the project’s proposed density was compared with the office building’s current size, but felt that concerns around traffic and the impact on the woods were less problematic.

The commission cannot regulate against a project because of the number of children it may potentially bring to Darien, Olvany said.

But adding multifamily housing is a priority for the commission and for the town, he said.

“We do get a ton of pressure from the State of Connecticut to add multifamily and what I've been advocating for years is that we want to be able to put multifamily where we want to,” Olvany said. “I think local control is what we want.”

The commission will meet again on Jan. 25 to further discuss the project. Meetings begin at 7:30 p.m. and can be accessed via GoToMeeting.