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Conze on State of Town: Downtown is 'Vibrant'

Fred Conze's State of the Town Address Monday before the Representative Town Meeting notes how well the downtown area is doing.

Downtown Darien is continuing to experience a "transformative change and vibrancy" in its economy, Planning & Zoning Chairman Fred Conze said Monday in his "State of the Town" address.

"Our downtown continues to become more user and pedestrian friendly with numerous new restaurants and other retail establishments," he said. "The commercial base continues to grow, and will generate additional tax revenues over time through its redevelopment."

Conze's was one of four "State of the Town" addresses given before the Representative Town Meeting on Monday. First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, Board of Education Chairperson Betsy Hagerty-Ross and Board of Finance Chairman Liz Mao gave the other addresses.

(Only Conze and Stevenson emailed their speeches to Darien Patch on Monday evening; Mao and Hagerty-Ross also said they would send in their statements to Patch.)

"Of course, the big news of this year was the storm Sandy in late October," Conze said. "The Planning and Zoning office has had numerous meetings with property owners, and is working with many of them on reviewing available options and assisting in the application preparation and permitting process."

Conze said he expects many proposals for elevating and rebuilding houses to come before the Planning and Zoning Commission over the next few months.

He also pointed out what he called an "interesting" statistic: "[F]rom 1990 to the year 2010 the number of school age children in Darien increased 80 percent. There is a reason for this growth. Darien has a lot to offer. We must, however, be ever mindful of our objective of maintaining the residential character of our town."

Text of Conze's Speech

The following is the complete, word-for-word text of Conze's address, as prepared. Minor style changes have been made, including the addition of boldface; the subheadings are Conze's:

Good evening Madame Moderator, members of the RTM, other elected and appointed officials, and the people of Darien.

I am pleased to give you this annual “State of the Town” address, looking back on 2012, updating you on the activities of the Planning and Zoning Commission and the other local land use boards within the past year, and giving you a flavor for what is in store for 2013.

First, I want to acknowledge the transformative change and vibrancy we are witnessing in our central business district. This uplift has come about because of the commitment of energy and capital of our local developers, the  hard work and dedication of my fellow members of the Planning and Zoning Commission and particularly our professional Planning & Zoning staff.  

Although not apparent to the public, the Planning & Zoning staff processes an enormous amount of applications and related paperwork. Over the past year, there have been

  • over 25 Planning and Zoning Commission meetings as well as numerous meetings between commission members and staff; 
  • 16 meetings of the Zoning Board of Appeals;
  • 11 meetings of the Environmental Protection Commission, and
  • nine for the Architectural Review Commission.

Each the 61 formal meetings of these commissions required an extraordinary amount of preparation including meetings with potential applicants, surveys, plans, meeting agendas, preparation and delivery of meeting packets, subsequent resolutions, etc.—all in the service of public interest and an effort to arrive at the best possible decisions in each of the pending matters and fulfilling their respective legal obligations. 

I would also like to tip my hat to the folks at Channel 79—our “eye in the sky”—who provide an invaluable service to us all.

A Look Back

Our downtown continues to become more user- and pedestrian-friendly with numerous new restaurants and other retail establishments. The commercial base continues to grow, and will generate additional tax revenues over time through its redevelopment. A number of commercial projects are underway [see attached map for locations] including:

  • 20 West Ave., across the street from the Darien Train Station, where significant renovation has occurred to occupy this 18,000-square-foot building which had been vacant for over a year;
  • The new development which has just started at the corner of Day Street and Boston Post Road that will result in two new mixed-use buildings including six market rate apartments;
  • Another new mixed-use building is underway at 745 Boston Post Rd. at its intersection with Academy Street. This project will include eight market rate residential units. Under our recently enacted Inclusionary Zone regulation, this project will generate a $360,000 contribution to a trust fund for the development of affordable housing in our town. Both the Day Street and Academy Street projects will each result in a number of new market-rate apartments within walking distance to the Train Station, as well incremental commercial space.

Outside of our commercial/retail areas are a number of other projects underway:

  • The redevelopment of Allen O’Neill Homes off of Noroton Avenue continues.  This project will provide more than 106 units of affordable housing.  The first units are expected to come on-line in the spring.  Work on this project will continue into 2014.
  • The development of Kensett, at the former Procaccini property off  Hoyt Street, will result in 62 new, three-bedroom, market-rate condominiums.  Buildout of this project will take at least two to three more years.  For those of us who remember this property as an old gravel pit, the change has been eye-opening.
  • Maplewood of Darien at 599 Post Road has just opened as assisted living facility on the former Mediplex site.  This project fills a need in the community, and at the same time, is providing an added increase to the Town’s grand list.

In addition to the above, the Commission  continues to assist property owners in responding to ever changing market conditions. Recently, we rezoned the back of the Thorndal Circle office park to allow more flexibility in attracting office tenants.

Of course, the big news of this year was the storm Sandy in late October.  There are many in our community who were greatly affected, and have had to make serious decisions about their homes. 

The Planning and Zoning office has had numerous meetings with property owners, and is working with many of them on reviewing available options and assisting in the application preparation and permitting process. 

The Planning and Zoning Commission is sure to see many applications submitted over the next  few months for proposals to elevate and rebuild houses. While it is an unfortunate that this storm had such an impact, we are hopeful and optimistic, that elevation of homes will help minimize the future impacts of any storms down the road.

A look ahead

As stated, numerous applications of those properties affected by Sandy are on the immediate horizon. Rebuilding can be a daunting process and I urge those dealing with this issue to work closely with the Planning & Zoning staff to help in this regard.

Second, is the next phase of the “Shuffle”. The renovation work at 35 Leroy Ave. will be done in Spring 2013, and the Board of Education will be moving out of Town Hall at that time.  Renovation work will then begin in the former Board of Education wing at Town Hall, which is the other side of this building, to create a new  Community Center.

Third, the Commission will be reviewing zoning regulation amendments.  Staff is now in the process of receiving input from the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Architectural Review Board. The Planning & Zoning Commission’s subcommittee tasked with updating our 2007 affordable housing study will be submitting its review in the next few weeks.  

The Commission will be reviewing regulations that have proven to be troublesome to implement; or that should be changed in response to new State Statutes or court decisions.

In late 2013, or early 2014, the Commission will be embarking on its ten-year update of the Town Plan of Conservation and Development.  We’ll start some of the basic legwork on this multi-year project late this year, with the expectation that the Commission can adopt the final product in 2016. 

It gives us an opportunity to address a number of relevant issues before the town including density, infrastructure capacity, land use, etc. all impacting our objective of maintaining the residential character of our town.

Summary

In closing, our town seems to be doing well. It is encouraging to witness the invigorated heartbeat found in our commercial areas. As an almost forty year resident of Darien, I can recall a time when you would rarely see a car on the Post Road after 7 p.m. unless there was a traffic jam on I-95. Now you have to look for a parking space.

We continue to have substantial issues on our plate including affordable housing and related litigation, the development of an affordable housing strategy using various zoning techniques such as overlay zones, and balancing infrastructure capacity with issues of land use and over development.

I would like to leave you with an interesting statistic: from 1990 to the year 2010 the number of school age children in Darien increased 80 percent. There is a reason for this growth. Darien has a lot to offer. We must, however, be ever mindful of our objective of maintaining the residential character of our town. Thank you, and good evening.

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