Planning and Zoning Chairman John Sini’s State of the Town Address

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Thank you, Mister Moderator. Good evening everyone, I am John Sini, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Thanks to Town Officials During a Busy Year

Before I commence with my update, I would like to extend my thanks to my fellow commissioners for all their hard work and dedication: Steve Olvany, our vice chair, Kevin Cunningham, our secretary and the commission’s longest serving member; as well as Jim Rand, Liz Riva, and Jennifer Leahy.

John Sini State of the Town 2018

Image from Darien TV79 video

Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman John Sini delivering his State of the Town address to the Representative Town Meeting on Monday night.

As many of you know, the applications can be complex, our public hearings can be emotive and our meetings often run late into the evening. I deeply appreciate how well commission members work together in order to reach a fair consensus within our legal bounds.

I want you to know that our commission members come to our meetings with one clear intention: That is to render decisions that comply with the applicable standards found in our regulations, and are in the best interest for the future of Darien and all of its stakeholders.

The Planning and Zoning Commission conducted 27 meetings in 2018 and reviewed 63 zoning applications. While the number applications is down from almost 90 in 2017, a few of the proposals were arguably some the most complex decisions the commission has ever faced.

These approved projects will have a momentous influence on our community for decades to come. I will discuss some of these key projects in a few minutes.

The Environmental Protection Commission, the Zoning Board of Appeals, and the Architectural Review Board were also busy this year, conducting a total of 37 meetings among the three bodies.

The efforts of all of our land-use board volunteers are crucial to the conservation, planning and development activities in our town. Their service to our town is deeply appreciated.

I would also like to thank all of our Planning and Zoning Department staff members under the direction of Jeremy Ginsberg. Without our staff’s labor, the four land use boards would certainly struggle to fulfill their obligations to our town. Our senior planner, Fred Doneit is deserved of recognition for drafting the countless pages of resolutions and minutes.

My last shout-out goes out to the staff at TV-79 with its gavel-to-gavel coverage of our late night meetings, providing a valuable resource for not only our local government, but also the entire community.

Baywater Properties’ Corbin Project

As I look back this year, the most noteworthy of the applications approved by our Commission was Baywater Properties’ downtown Corbin project. After over three years of regulation amendment and site plan hearings, the commission approved the last of the applications related to this redevelopment project on Nov. 27.

This redevelopment area is bordered by the Post Road, I-95 and the exit 11 off-ramp to Corbin Drive — including the gas station and additional two properties on the east side of the street reaching south to Old King’s Highway South. This transformative development, consisting of nine new multi-story buildings in the middle of our downtown, will arguably represent the largest in the Darien’s history.

As part of the project’s inclusionary affordable housing requirement, the commission approved the creation of an overlay zone that will allow for 12 housing units on East Lane for adults with intellectual disabilities. These independent units will further diversify Darien’s housing stock and provide much-needed housing among that special community.

Highland Farm

Another project approved this year is the Ox Ridge Riding and Racquet Club. The new construction and renovation work is now well underway at the site.

Related to the club’s transformation was the purchase of the 16-acre property now known as Highland Farm by the Town of Darien. In July, the commission approved site improvements for the property, including new parking areas, and a jogging/walking path.

The special permit approval allows for various programming and activities to occur on-site once fencing is constructed and parking areas are provided. This property represents an open-space treasure for the entire community to enjoy.

Andrew Shaw Scout Cabin

Just recently, the commission approved replacement of the Scout Cabin on West Avenue. The Andrew Shaw Memorial Trust purchased an adjacent residential property and will combine it with scout’s existing property while building a larger cabin. This project will significantly improve the site and meet flood regulations.

During the public hearing process, a great deal of time and effort was spent listening to comments from the scout trustees, their experts, neighbors and other scout representatives.

I believe the final resolution for this project and its associated related programming activities represented a true compromise by fulfilling the needs of the scouts while limiting the impact to the surrounding neighborhood, all while complying with local zoning and special permit requirements and standards.

In July, the commission expedited the Board of Education’s application and approved the request to establish the Fitch Academy on the second floor of 6 Thorndal Circle, in close proximity to the library. The commission is hopeful that the Fitch Academy may have found a long-term home for this wonderful education program.

Renovated Property, New Businesses

There are two projects now happening on the east end of the Post Road corridor: This fall, various improvements were approved to the Darien Green Office Park, which is adjacent to, and behind Duchess Restaurant.

We expect the enhancements to lure office and medical tenants into the facility and bring an influx of new jobs into town. Another notable improvement project approved was 364 Post Road, the building where Jack’s Fabrics and the Sewing Machine were formerly located, which should offer additional retail and personal service options.

Several new businesses opened their doors over the last year including Hollow Tree Ridge Self Storage; Flour, Water, Salt; Bankwell; Osteostrong; Dance on the DL; Huntington Learning; Bonny Reflexology; Danny’s Cycles; and Roost. Café Nero should also open very soon.

Lastly, we expect the Residence at Selleck’s Woods, the town’s newest assisted living and memory care facility located at the Parklands site to accept residents in early 2019. Fourteen new condominium units at Kensett’s Phase II are now well underway, with expected completion in 2020.

Many Improvements Over the Past 15 Years

As I was reflecting on the five years that I have served on the commission, a constant theme came to mind: It is “Change.” One of the things we often take for granted is the amount of positive momentum on this front that our town has experienced over the last 15 years.

It’s easy to forget that not so long ago, our business districts had a number of open lots and vacant storefronts and buildings. Real estate brokers would avoid taking potential homebuyers through our downtown or even past our high school given their lack of attractiveness relative to other surrounding communities.

Popular destinations that we enjoy today like Trader Joes, Whole Foods, Chipotle, Shake Shack, the Darien Playhouse, Grove Street Plaza and even the Darien High School all faced zoning challenges in one form or another.

In our downtown, pedestrians were few, signage was limited, restaurants and personal service businesses had to clear high hurdles for approvals, and outside dining and gathering places weren’t the norm.

Socrates wrote, “The secret of change is to focus all your energy, not on fighting the old, but building the new.” Thankfully, since the early 2000’s, Darien has certainly focused its energy on “building the new” and we are all reaping the benefits. Many community members and town leaders, past and present, are responsible for creating and maintaining the momentum.

Construction in 2019

With the Old Town Hall Homes, Federal Realty, Noroton Heights Shopping Center and Corbin projects all expected to commence with construction in 2019, Darien is about to experience one its most monumental makeovers in its history.

We are all very fortunate to live a town that has garnered so much interest for its several redevelopment projects, many being led by developers that have deep roots in our community and have an interest in maintaining Darien’s character and charm.

Needless to say, these multi-year construction projects will likely result in temporary disruption, yet I am confident that the final products will be game-changers for both the Noroton Heights Business District and downtown.

Each site plan has a layout that allows for more pedestrian-friendly areas, complete with ample open spaces and outside dining areas, creating a desirable sense of place to live, work and play.

I know David Genovese is excited to reveal a digital rendering which will provide an idea what is to come for the Corbin block on the ‘Our Downtown Darien’ site.

Housing to Attract Millenials, Retain Elderly, and Affordable Housing

Plans to add 297 one and two-bedroom units among the three projects will not only attract the next generation millennials to our community — a group that seems to be lured by vibrant downtown and commercial areas — they will also expand the housing options for our long-time residents who are looking to downsize, yet remain in the community that they raised their families.

Between the new developments’ affordable units and the expansion of Old Town Hall Homes, the projects will yield approximately 55 new affordable units in Darien. Our local regulations and policy decisions are clearly achieving the goal of adding more affordable units in town.

However, once the town’s second 8-30(g) moratorium expires in October 2020, we are likely to see affordable housing proposals that fall outside our local zoning regulations.

Mitigating Flooding on Heights Road

Given the recent flooding incidents on Heights Road, I would like to remind everyone that commission worked very closely with the developers to build flood mitigation systems and other drainage improvements in the area, which will be further enhanced by a town-sponsored project in the Noroton Heights [Railroad Station] commuter lot.

This will be implemented as the redevelopment projects are constructed, and should help in reducing the impact of heavy rain events.

Commercial Development in Town

While the ongoing commercial redevelopment will assist in maintaining the value of Darien’s grand list, it is important to remember that residential properties make up 85 percent of the towns $8.6 billion tax base, which is flat with last year. The commission is committed to maintaining Darien’s economic vibrancy through supporting sensible renovations and redevelopment.

The commission’s effort to implement zoning regulation modifications for signage was completed in 2018. It has also started the process to simplify various business zones as well as consider implementing the Municipal Use zone for several of our town-owned properties, including our schools, which will allow for more zoning flexibility for future municipal projects.

Conclusion

Because my term ends in November 2019, this will be my last State of the Town address. As I look back over the last five years that I served as a commissioner, I am gratified of all the projects that P&Z has helped enable.

I feel a sense of reward by visualizing many small fingerprints on each one of the approved projects. I deeply appreciate the input and guidance from so many members of this community over the last five years.

I want to leave you with the same message that I left you with last year: The commission can’t make decisions effectively without feedback from the community. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us with any comments – positive or negative.

Thank you again for your time this evening. I wish you all a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and healthy and prosperous 2019!

Editor’s note: Darienite.com added subheadings and made minor changes to reflect this publication’s editorial style.

See Sini’s Address on TV79

In this video, you can see Sini’s address from about 5:00 to just after 18:00:

RTM – State of The Town 12-10-18 from Darien TV79 on Vimeo.

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