St. Stephen’s plans draw no comments
Listening in silence to plans to relocate a St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church’s parking area and shift an internal property line, the crowd of about 50 remained silent — even when asked for comment. Then they nearly all filed out.
But people will have another chance to raise concerns, or ask questions about St. Stephen’s plans.
A public hearing on the plans will resume on Tuesday, Oct. 15, before the Planning and Zoning Commission and Inland Wetlands Board.
The reconvened hearing will get answers to a couple of technical questions — and will offer another chance for people to speak their minds.
Since the initial public hearing session on Sept. 24 just about filled the hearing room, and earlier this summer the church’s plans prompted a lengthy and heated social media debate, it may have surprised commission members that no one from the audience took the opportunity to speak.
The plans and application drew considerable attention because they’re viewed as a step toward the possible sale of South Hall, a residential building which is one of five structures on the church’s six-and-a-half acre property at 351 and 353 Main Street, across from Governor Street at the south end of the village commercial district.
At the start of the hearing, Planning and Zoning Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti addressed the issue of the church’s potential next step.
“Any future plans St. Stephen’s may have for its property will be made by St. Stephen’s, and will not be part of tonight’s proceedings,” Mucchetti said.
The application and public hearing are narrowly focused on the plans to relocate a parking area from behind South Hall to behind the church sanctuary, and to move a lot line that currently separates the church’s property into two parcels, one of a little less than three acres and the other just under four acres.
Attorney Robert Jewell, representing the church, said the proposed lot line adjustment would leave the church sanctuary, the parsonage, North Hall and a garage building on a lot of a little over five acres, while South Hall would remain on a lot of slightly over an acre.
Most of the church property is in a one-acre residential zone, but a small area at the rear of the six-acre site is in an R-20 zone, which allows houses on lots of 20,000 square feet — about half an acre.
While the zone allows houses on lots as small as one acre, a little more land was needed to keep the South Hall lot compliant with other P&Z rules, including a floor area ratio regulation, Jewell said.
Currently there is some parking behind North Hall, Jewell said, “but most of the parking is in a gravel lot behind South Hall.”
It is this parking area that the church plans to move. The processed stone in the parking area behind South Hall would be dug up and replaced with topsoil and seed that would grow into a lawn. The parking area behind the church sanctuary would then be enlarged. The reconfigured parking area is designed to accommodate 94 cars, and would include four handicapped parking spaces.
Architect John Doyle of Coffin-Doyle Architecture assured the commission that lighting for the new parking lot would meet town standards designed to keep outdoor lighting from being visually intrusive.
“It’s lit with lighting that’s compliant, and can’t really be seen from Main Street,” he said.
Commissioner Joe Fossi said someone from St. Stephen’s had said the church doesn’t need all the parking that’s there now. Perhaps a portion of the planned new parking area could be set aside — but left as it is, and not dug up and paved until some future date when it’s needed.
“Look at leaving an area for future parking, but not preparing it,” Fossi said, “so we have no more impervious surface than necessary.”
A question came up concerning talk that a playground and garden might be moved as part of the project.
“I don’t believe there’s any plans to move the playground and garden,” said Jewell.
The church’s environmental consultant, Kate Throckmorton of Environmental Land Solutions, addressed concerns that had been raised about a protected turtle species that may be found in some of the small wetland patches on the site.
She said the issue arose because of concern that there’s “a box turtle historically known to be in the wetlands over by the Boys and Girls Club.”
Making sure the planned work wouldn’t hurt any turtles and could be accomplished using a fairly straightforward approach before construction begins. “They’d walk the area, making sure there’s not any turtles,” Throckmorton said.
The current stone church sanctuary — the congregation’s fourth building over its close to 300 years of history — dates back more than 100 years.
Jewell also offered the hearing a little background.
The church use — though not the current church building — dates back to mid-1700s. On April 27, 1777, British troops came through town and were confronted by colonial troops in, yes, the Battle of Ridgefield.
“As they were retreating to Westport after burning Danbury, they lit the church on fire,” Jewell said of the British.
Although the congregation in colonial times was part of the Church of England, headed by the king, the denomination in America became the Episcopal Church after the Revolution “since we fought against the king,” Jewell said, “and won the war.”