The developer of an apartment-and-condo complex on the edge of downtown New Canaan is at odds with municipal officials about whether he’s building what they approved.
Though members of the Planning & Zoning Commission have said that at some point a set of plans for Merritt Village specified that retaining walls would be finished with a “fieldstone veneer,” local builder Arnold Karp of property owner M2 Partners said final approved plans make no such specification.
“They are making it seem that we didn’t follow plans,” Karp told NewCanaanite.com in an interview after Tuesday night’s regular meeting of P&Z. “The truth is that plans in Town Hall, stamped and approved, did not show a fieldstone veneer. They are going to something prior to that.”
He referred to a set of plans submitted to the Commission and town planner in August of 2016, five months before P&Z approved the 110-unit complex at Park and Maple Streets. According to Karp, an updated final set of plans went into the town the following month, prior to when the public hearing on the Merritt application closed.
Officials appear not to be able to find those plans, he said.
“The best I can say is they missed it,” he said. “The most confusing thing is that there seems to be missing plans. They are referencing a set of plans dated August and we know there is a September set that all of the sudden no one can find. How does that happen?”
The retaining along Park Street immediately became a point of focus among neighbors and passersby when they began to materialize last fall. Some criticized the walls’ faux-stone finish, leading P&Z to summon Karp to explain. He said the project was still early-stage with no context and that he was building what the town approved. P&Z then sent Karp a letter calling for him to finish the walls with a fieldstone veneer, and he responded, restating his position and declining. P&Z at its December meeting considered denying Merritt Village its building permits (they would be issued two days later) and said Commissioners would study the hundreds of pages of plans to find out whether there’s a black-and-white indication that Karp had promised something other than what he’s building.
On Tuesday, Commissioner Kent Turner reported back, saying “there is a schedule on one sheet that calls out ‘retaining walls shall be fieldstone,’ ” and that renderings depict a wall that looks like fieldstone rather than stamped concrete stone.
Yet it’s unclear whether a zoning violation based on such would hold up in court, according to Peter Gelderman, an attorney with Westport-based Berchem Moses PC that the town hired to look into the matter.
“There is not a crystal clear answer here,” Gelderman told the Commission.
None of the 65 conditions of approval for Merritt Village note the material of the retaining walls specifically, Gelderman said, though he added, “What you approved in your minds may not be what you approved on paper and that is, to some extent, what the court might look at.”
“From a legal point of view, it is not something I would call a slam dunk,” he said.
Gelderman said that in the future, P&Z should condition “strict compliance” to approved plans, specifying that “any deviation is a [zoning violation].”
Ultimately, P&Z Chairman John Goodwin requested that Gelderman return to the Commission with a series of options with respect to the Merritt Village project.
Karp said the project is about 4 percent finished at this point.
During the P&Z meeting, Turner added that there is a section of the retaining wall that suddenly rises five feet that appears to be greater than the elevations indicated on building plans.
Town Planner Lynn Brooks Avni responded that since “there is no finished grade to measure height” right now, it’s impossible to tell how tall the wall will appear once Merritt Village is finished—for example, whether some of it may be buried underground once the landscaping is done.