“We asked them to vote on every single item,” said resident Connie Towers. “But with the exception of the number four item, everything was lumped in together. What they said took two-and-a-half years to complete, they gave us only two-and-a-half months to try and understand why these changes and why now.”
For the first vote, the board unanimously approved the changes. The number four item, which would allow garden centers, restaurants and self-storage facilities in the area on Route 50 beyond the mall and on Route 9, was passed 4 – 1 with Councilman John Lant dissenting.
The proposed changes now head to the state for final approval and will take effect approximately at the end of the month.
In January of 2010, Supervisor Art Johnson asked Councilman Robert Pulsifer to head a committee to look at some zoning changes that “may require some tweaking.” At that meeting, the supervisor suggested that Mike Dobis from the planning department as well as a member of the zoning board also be on the committee, but left the actual choosing of members to Pulsifer.
Minutes from the meeting reveal that Pulsifer was to come back to the town board with his “recommendations and the ones the board adopts we can draft the legislature then set a public hearing.”
But that never happened.
Subsequent minutes do not show Pulsifer producing any updates on the committee, or who was actually on it. Nor do they show board members inquiring about the progress of the zoning changes.
“I gave him the assignment and he took the ball and ran with it,” said Johnson when questioned if Pulsifer had kept him aware of the committee’s progress or the changes they were considering, adding that occasionally Pulsifer did let him know what was going on.
“He did keep me abreast, but I did not get too involved,” said Johnson.
At the November 2012, town board meeting Pulsifer announced the Zoning Revision Committee’s recommendations were in and he thanked a number of people, most of whom he named, owned businesses along Route 9 and Route 50 or who had a business interest in those areas.
Calling the changes “tweaks” and “minor housekeeping,” Pulsifer said the changes needed to be made in order to bring about economic development to Wilton. He did not elaborate much on what the actual changes were, bringing up the subject of the sidewalk ordinance and of land owners who were denied businesses because of the scope of the Comprehensive Plan.
Even though Johnson had said at the 2010 meeting they would “draft the legislature” for the proposed changes before the public hearing, at the November meeting he set the public hearing for December 6.
The meeting room was packed for the public hearing, but residents were given only three minutes to speak. Most of their questions went unanswered including what process was used to make these determinations, who was on the committee and were any impact studies conducted.
In a December 17, 2012 letter to the board members, Robert Walsh and Janet Talley questioned board members about a number of issues, including exactly what were the things that needed tweaking and who served on the committee.
“What analyses were conducted to ascertain the nature of and extent of the problems plaguing the current Town Code, and the changes that purport to correct them?” they wrote.
Continuing, Talley and Walsh pushed for information on the committee members, pointing out that no record of the committee ever meeting or who was asked to be on it existed.
“It is as if the group never existed and all we have as evidence of its work is a marked up copy of sections of the Town Code and a map,” they wrote.
A Freedom of Information request in February by a resident finally produced a list of people who were on the committee, but many named on it have or will have a business interest in the areas being affected by the zoning changes; two are not Wilton residents; and many, of Pulsifer’s own admission, were or are clients of his.
“I wanted to know if any of them were or are represented by him,” said Lant. Pulsifer is an attorney. His business is located on Route 9 in Wilton and his Yellow Pages advertisement lists him as handling, among others, real estate closings, planning and zoning issues and real estate law.
Pulsifer admitted that some had been represented by him, but that he did not see an Ethics violation or conflict of interest since those matters did not involve the town.
“I do not see it as a conflict,” said Johnson, adding that Pulsifer representing someone does not preclude them from being on a town committee.
As for not taking longer to review the changes, Johnson said he felt everyone had enough time to review them and speak up with concerns.
“I did not see the need to extend it,” said Johnson, adding that all the people protesting the changes came from the north end of Route 9 only.
“Not one person from Route 50 came in and complained,” said Johnson, noting that area will the most drastically affected.
Board members did keep the RB3 Zone, limited digital signage to the Route 50 corridor and changed wording so that only sit down restaurants would be allowed.
Residents are still frustrated with the process and the way they felt they were treated when they tried to get the board to slow down and clearly define the thought processes for the changes and how the changes were determined.
“Why are they even changing things that affect the Comprehensive Plan?” asked Towers. “Maybe because someone has a vested interest [in the proposed changes?] These changes were not done for the benefit of the residents, but for the interests of a few.”
One of the areas that concerned residents was the elimination of two historically significant hamlet areas in Wilton – one at the northeast corner of Exit 16 and the other at the corner of Route 9 and Corinth Mountain Road.
“The changes simply increased density across the board,” said Towers, noting that the changes in setbacks allow for businesses to now be closer to the road and build the same size structures on a lot half the size called for in the Comprehensive Plan. “It changes the neighborhood buffer zones. These zoning [changes] are bringing in self-storage, restaurants and gardening centers.”
Towers has not been the only one silent in an effort to get the board to spend more time looking over the proposed changes and to justify the need for them.
At the public hearing, the January meeting and the Informational Presentation, dozens of residents turned out, seeking answers. For the most part, their requests fell on deaf ears in spite of a campaign to force the board to not act so quickly. The majority of those at the Informational Presentation walked out two hours into the session when Pulsifer took his time in a personal monologue to detail every single change instead of tackling the ones most important, such as reduced lot sizes, incorporating the R2 zone into a R1 zone and digital signage.
Even a recommendation from the county did not stem the board from approving the changes. A county referral is required with any amendment proposed for zoning. While the county recommended they look at the changes at Exit 16, citing “creeping zoning change without public input,” that could affect residents, board members chose to vote anyway.
“We did move the buffer zone back to a natural line,” said Johnson, explaining it was now along the creek instead of closer to the residential area.
Lant, the only board member who has been vocal in his disapproval of Pulsifer’s process, of the lack of beforehand information and the lack of respect being shown residents, asked Pulsifer to recuse himself from the vote since he had been on the committee. Pulsifer refused.
“Residents want it the way it is,” said Lant, adding that while some of the changes were okay, the process used by Pulsifer and other board members was the crux of the problem. “Of course [the residents are] upset. It was handled wrong.”