P&Z Approves 110 Units for Proposed ‘Merritt Village’ Development

With mixed feelings and in the most heavily conditioned approval in memory, the Planning & Zoning Commission on Tuesday night voted unanimously in favor of allowing up to 110 units for the planned redevelopment of the Merritt Apartments property on the edge of downtown New Canaan.

Though the proposed ‘Merritt Village’ complex came down in the total number of units since an application was filed in June—from 123 as originally planned and 116 as later offered—some parts of its townhouse-style buildings will reach four stories.

Despite multiple adjustments from the applicant, M2 Partners LLC, which brought down the height of the development in some of its most conspicuous street-facing areas, the new allowable height—which is to be specific to the Merritt Village development—concerned much of the commission.

“I am not happy with it,” P&Z Commissioner Jack Flinn said of the decision.

“I really, really wanted to see it stay at the 3-story level and not break the 4-story ceiling with this. I think by doing that we are not protecting the character of the town. With the Plan of Conservation and Development and all of the meetings after meetings that we had on this issue and others, we talked about the character of the town and I have thought about that and for myself, I have concluded that the character of the town is really set by the people of the town. It’s the people who come here, who move here with their values, their families and see a town that they admire and want to live in and raise their children and send their children to the great schools that we have and so on. It’s what the people want. The housing, the stores, the trees, the parks and what have you, they all contribute, but it is the people who determine the character of the town.”

He added that M2 managing partner Arnold Karp, a New Canaan resident, is a “very good builder who we know well, who is going to build it for us.”

“We can live with that and I think that it can be done very well, and we are going to have to go with the buildings. The question I have is: Can we live with the decision to go with two [buildings at] four stories? And we have to live with that as well. So I just wish us good luck. I think that we all worked very hard trying to do the very best that we could, putting in a lot of time and a lot of effort. Putting ourselves into it, really. And I think we did the best we can for the people of the town, that’s how I feel about it and that has been my motivation through the whole thing.”

Approved 8-0 by the commission on 65 conditions—far more than anyone can remember for a building project in New Canaan—the decision follows months of vigorous debate and discussion among neighbors of the proposed condo-and-apartment complex, as well as P&Z members, advocates for seniors, St. Aloysius Church representatives, Realtors and third-party consultants who weighed in on pressing questions of traffic, school enrollment and real estate valuation.

Commissioners voting in favor of the approval included P&Z Chairman John Goodwin, Bill Redman, John Kriz, Claire Tiscornia, Flinn, Dick Ward, Laszlo Papp and Kent Turner. Commissioners Elizabeth DeLuca and Tony Shizari were absent, while Jean Grzelecki recused herself as a neighbor and Dan Radman recused himself as owner of a nearby property.

The conditions include one single underground parking garage with 193 spaces (instead of two garages as originally proposed), restricting a “common” building along Park Street to one story and with no dwelling units above it, appointment of a project liaison to keep an open line with neighbors and hear their concerns and multiple protections through and after construction for the “Maple Street Cemetery,” followed by creation of a public access way—possibly through an easement—to the historic burial ground.

“I think we want to make sure that the cemetery which we all agree is a cemetery is not infringed upon and is protected,” Kriz said during a lengthy discussion of the conditions. The meeting itself went five hours.

In weighing Merritt Village’s pros and cons, commissioners echoed many sentiments expressed by residents who took to the podium during some of the six public hearings that started after attorney Steve Finn of Stamford-based Wofsey Rosen Kweskin & Kuriansky LLP filed an application June 1 on behalf of M2.

Advocates of the project have pointed to a dearth of single-story downtown housing for seniors, pointing to several directives outlined in the POCD, which is meant to guide development in New Canaan.

Opponents have voiced concerns about the proposed height of Merritt Village, density, affect on real estate values, potential for increasing school enrollment, bringing unwanted traffic and altering the look and feel of New Canaan.

The approval calls for 110 units in four buildings of up to four stories where the 38-unit Merritt Apartments now stand—a combined 3.3-acre lot fronting parts of Maple and Park Streets, catty-corner to the library. P&Z approved a site plan and special permit, as well as an “overlay zone” that is specific to Merritt Village, makes the project possible within the New Canaan Zoning Regulations and could not be used elsewhere in town.

Tiscornia said she feared allowing the proposed overlay zone would “set a dangerous precedent for future developments.”

“I do not like the idea of adding an overlay zone to zoning that already exists,” she said. “I am concerned that this may open the door to developers in the future to construct their own overlay zones to tailor their own future projects. However, in regards to the Merritt application, the site is unique due to its size, proximity to the downtown and its overall location in the town. What we have here tonight is a compromise. Not everyone will be happy.”

P&Z during a hearing last month had broached the possibility of 105 units at Merritt Village. Goodwin said it made sense to restrict specifics such as setbacks, height and building footprints and to allow the developer “some flexibility” in determining the exact number of units.

The decision regarding the Merritt Village, as approved, now shifts to Karp. The prospect of an affordable housing application from M2 has loomed over the application all summer and into the fall, when P&Z commissioners closed the public hearing on Merritt Village and took up a discussion among themselves.

Karp indicated after the October hearing that his partners at M2 were unhappy with the figure of 105 units and willing to go the affordable housing route in order to redevelop Merritt Apartments.

New Canaan falls well short of a state standard, under which 10 percent of all housing stock in town qualifies as “affordable” under the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development’s definition. The town expects to achieve a four-year moratorium in early-2017 when a Certificate of Occupancy is issued for the more densely built affordable housing complex at Mill Pond. A second phase of that project is expected to get New Canaan a good way toward another four-year moratorium, and officials now are looking at Canaan Parish as a possibility for creating even more units.

Yet M2 likely has time to file its application for an affordable complex at Merritt Apartments before New Canaan qualifies for an exemption from the Affordable Housing Appeals Act—a state law often called by its statute number, “8-30g,” that would allow a developer such as M2 Partners to skirt local planning decisions by designating 30 percent of the units in a given development as “affordable” under the state’s definition.

Goodwin said that though he would have preferred to a development of 85 to 95 units—a figure the former town planner arrived at by calculating the most densely housed part of New Canaan and applying that math to the Merritt site—still the project in initial discussions was at 160 units.

“I think we were able to address the 4-story issue in the most significant areas on the property and get it down to three stories,” Goodwin said.

He also said the prospect of an affordable housing application was a driver for him, not least because New Canaan is fast approaching a period of relief from the law that could spur a developer to put in for an 8-30g project sooner.

The prospect of such an application was “a clear and present danger,” Goodwin said.

“So as I think about what is the right project for this location, I can live with 110 units and hopefully less. But what if it was 8-30g? At this location, it could support over 200 units, so would a 200-unit project be suitable at this location? I will admit that was a driver.”

Redman said that the applicant listened to many neighbors and “met the commission halfway in terms of requirements for height and loom.” The project is consistent with POCD goals and will address identified housing needs for empty-nesters and seniors, among others, he said.

Citing renowned urban theorist Jane Jacobs, Papp discussed the difference between “zoning for conformity” and “zoning for diversity.”

“Zoning for conformity will lead to stagnation and eventual decline in the community,” he said. “Zoning for diversity provides for progress. This commission, as I have known it, has always zoned for diversity. This was done when we were first among neighboring towns to approve a multifamily zone, taking into consideration the site and population needs.”

The town followed its philosophy in protecting open space, preserving historic buildings and recognizing the different districts within New Canaan.

“Diversity assured that the various areas of the town maintained their distinct characters, and I am totally satisfied that the proposed approval will satisfy these principles of good zoning practices,” Papp said.

20 thoughts on “P&Z Approves 110 Units for Proposed ‘Merritt Village’ Development

  1. The developer and his investors are the real winners here. Let’s see what happens to the traffic, school population, real estate property values, etc.

    • I was at the Merritt property in October when within earshot Karp said to the woman he was with, “They want me to go three stories, but I said, ‘No.'” I knew then who was in charge of the P&Z decision.

  2. We will certainly have a lovely and ever present showcase of greed for the center of town. I can’t wait for the law of unintended consequences to kick in. Traffic on Park Street will become nightmarish during the construction. I am certain that St. Aloysius reaction function will be an interesting one. Congratulations to P&Z for stepping over the precipice on this slippery slope. What’s next high rises? I guess that would solve the issue of cell towers.

  3. An absolute travesty and a shame.

    Note to the Town: the trend in our country is to vote people out when they don’t work FOR THE PEOPLE. And the quick reaction from the intelligent NC community will be to vote out politicians who appoint those to commissions that want to turn our tiny little downtown into Stamford.

  4. It sounds like this is the best compromise for the town given the situation- the very realistic possibility of an 8-30g being pushed through obviously as a prime motivator to compromise (look at Pemberton 16 in Darien as an example of what this could have been).

  5. A few points:

    I hope this will not be the disaster to the town that I think it will be.

    8-30g could not be ‘pushed through’ – as an expert witness at the P&Z hearings clearly testified. This was a bogie man.

    P&Z again shows a lack of backbone when it comes to dealing with developers (while they show too much backbone dealing with residents).

    By this ruling, P&Z is setting precedents here which the town will long regret.

    • Hi KR,

      Can you expand on what the expert witness said about why it could not be pushed through? Trying to find this information in prior articles to better understand.

  6. I am furious and suspect that something unseemly must have taken place behind the scenes in order for this approval to happen. This was a no-brainer from the very beginning: The project was not in keeping with zoning laws, and it received passionate objections and petitions from an enormous number of people who did not want it to ruin the character of the town. Therefore, just on that basis alone, the project should have been rejected. Had this developer Mr. Karp come back with an affordable housing proposal, we could have continued to fight him. (And what kind of miserable creep would do that to bend people to his will anyway?)
    The statement from Jack Flinn about the character of the town being determined just by the people is plain idiotic. The increase in traffic in recent years has made visiting the village I love an unpleasant experience. I was driving out of town the other day, and there was traffic at the Park Street/Pine Street light that stretched all the way south nearly two-thirds of the way to Mead Street. What is it going to be like with the Merritt Village on top of it? A clusterf—-, that’s what.
    This is beyond shocking because it is so clear that no one benefits except the developer. So how are the members of the Planning & Zoning Commission benefiting, is what I’d like to know, because the members obviously are not acting with the residents’ interest in mind. Are we supposed to naively believe that this is all above-board? Someone needs to look more closely into this.
    Meanwhile, is there no recourse for us as residents? I’m not saying nothing should be built, just that it should stick to three stories and 85 units, maximum. Is there nothing we can do? If there is, I’m there!

  7. It is amazing to me how town bodies will enforce the size and color of signs for businesses in town but when it comes to adhering to existing zoning requirements they are happy to approve proposals that clearly go against what matter to the citizens of this town. I am also wondering how there will be enough water for all these new residents when there are strains on our current infrastructure?

  8. Extremely disappointed the P &Z is not representing the interests of the town. Allowing for double the zoned apartments in a town where setback variances are measured in inches while excusing their decision by citing a 8-30g threat is both disingenuous and uninformed.

    The boards comments regarding “Amazon’s threat to downtown” and “victories” around height are distractions against the core issue of zoning exception. The starting point should be the number of units allowed in the zone, not a fairytale “Zone” imagined by the developer to maximize profits.

    The affordable housing never would have made enough money for this group. With the moratorium just a few days away clearly this was an empty threat that the town fell for. A developer paid too much money for a project for investors, barring bullying the town into re-zoning, he just won. Unfortunately the precedent was just set for new parties to come in and do just the same thing. The rest of the town that is focused on creating a sustainable downtown that has thoughtful zone-based growth, lost big.

    • I agree with Chris. This decision has opened the door for every Tom, Dick, & Harry to build a monstrosity here, citing this precedent as a means to get there. I’m sure a lot of them are planning and licking their chops as I write.
      This is not a matter of somebody wanting a variance to put an addition on a house that goes a little over what the property size allows. This is a clear case of developer being greedy, and he appears to have steamrolled over everyone and everything in his way. The wishes of a town’s residents regarding the character of the town should be paramount in such a decision, and the P&Z Commission has failed us. Some will argue that it is a complex process and that P&Z did its best, but I simply disagree.
      This needs to stop now. Perhaps what New Canaan needs to do is make it a requirement that, even with private property, there needs to do a referendum regarding a potential variance for a project that is seen to threaten or significantly alter the traffic or character of the town. In this case, it is both.
      Meanwhile, please, is anybody aware of something we residents can do to effectively fight this decision?

  9. It is fair to disagree with the P&Z decision. In my opinion, it is not fair to accuse P&Z members of corruption. In my opinion, it is not fair to claim a conspiracy without any supporting evidence. I am saddened that this decision would so quickly devolve into an a personal attack on the character and motives of town residents who volunteer countless hours to serve on a public Commission.

    This clearly was a hard and troubling decision for them, too. The personal time that these volunteers put in on behalf of our town is really extraordinary. Look at how many hours these meetings themselves go on for — then add in the site visits, the reading of documents, etc. etc. I really doubt that there is a payoff big enough to justify any single member of any single board or commission in this town wrecking their reputation for. They all live here, too. They want a caring community and a nice place to live. Let’s all try to be a little kinder and reasonable in how we respond to difficult public issues. If we don’t, i suspect we will find it pretty hard to get anyone to step into any public shoes in the future!

  10. It will be extremely sad to see the bucolic and idyllic atmosphere of our wonderful town disappear. If the P&Z commission members are not acting on behalf of what the majority of us want, then they should stop representing us and they should be replaced.

  11. To the reader who submitted a comment as ‘Concerned NC Taxpayer’ with the email address ‘here@there.com’: All comments are gated and I don’t approve them unless I can verify identification, such as through email, and I ask that commenters use a full name for strongly worded remarks such as yours. Thank you, please try re-submitting.

  12. Eminent Domain? According to many Town Studies – this was the LAST site in New Canaan ideal for walkable, affordable Senior Housing (especially for empty nester, long-term residents who have paid taxes for decades into New Canaan – time to give something back to the real owners of the Town – taxpaying residents). The Town would have paid $6MM for the site and eventually it sold for $8MM to M2 Partners (close enough). 1st: Why doesn’t M2 Sell it back to the Town so the Town can build affordable housing for our senior residents – so they don’t have to move out of town? There are no other sites (ideal locations) now that can be used for this purpose (aside from lumberyard lot and that will be voted down again). 2nd: Didn’t P&Z violate their responsibility to look at the whole POCD holistically and not break zoning laws to allow a project which negates the Town’s Senior Affordable Housing plans to benefit private development? What happened to Stay Put New Canaan’s advocacy and planning? What about invoking EMINENT DOMAIN – by the town to get the property back to develop into Affordable Senior Housing – to support M2 Partner’s points (they agree). But there is possibly an even more nefarious future problem on this site…that may dwarf this project…and which makes me believe M2 may be crying crocodile tears about how “hard” P&Z are on them – it may have been a great show. See next text.

  13. Further to above: Report shows Merritt Village is in Conflict with Land Use Planning, POCD & Final Report from NC Senior Housing Policy Team (2010): http://www.newcanaan.info/filestorage/9488/9220/809/10963/13513/PhaseII-Final2010-11-11PDF.pdf

    – The Merritt Village Site is only 1 of 2 sites left for Senior Affordable Housing for independent in-town living. (the other is the lumberyard lot). When Merritt Village gone – we have a very unpopular option which is not likely to go thru.
    – M2 Partners (complicit with the Town P&Z if they approve zoning change) is removing the last, best place to support current senior residents who want to stay in town but are not vastly wealthy.
    – M2 Partners is displacing middle-income people who rent the current apartments – with units for millionaires – further skewing the NC population even more toward rich people, away from housing for middle class and ignoring what report above projected – that we have senior residents who need affordable housing in New Canaan (walkable) who will never be able to get it.
    – Seniors can buy luxury homes anywhere in Town – including new construction on Viiti Street, Forrest Street, Park St. (where 2 homes used to be).

    If Merritt Village were in any other location in New Canaan – you could not make this argument. But from a zoning and land use site – it’s special, cited in many reports and should not be developed for more high end housing – even if targeted to wealthy seniors.

    The town would have paid $6MM for the site (asking was originally $20MM from the family but it eventually sold to M2 for $8MM) Why wasn’t the Town keeping it’s eye on the property and why didn’t they buy it?

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