DARIEN – Zoning officials and neighbors of a proposed 22-unit downtown apartment complex again challenged developer plans, pointing to a high flood risk, traffic increases and potentially excessive height.
Since 2019, town boards and commissions have requested changes to plans for the three-story complex, including height reductions, adding retail and changing building materials.
But at a Tuesday Planning and Zoning Commission, members honed in on a key problem – the entire property is in a floodplain, and the developers have no evacuation plan yet.
The 20,648-square-foot property in downtown Darien sits adjacent to Goodwives River which, during both tropical storms Elsa and Ida, overflowed and flooded nearby businesses. The property is also located in Flood Zone AE, meaning there is a 1 percent chance that it floods each year.
Robert Maslan, attorney for project developer Harold Platz, argued the apartment complex would be “flood proof” as the ground floor would serve as a surface-level parking garage, and the two upper floors of apartments would be well above base flood elevation.
“There’ll be a generator on the roof. People don’t have to evacuate,” Maslan said. “They can live in their units for a few days until the flood waters subside.”
“That’s your recommendation? That’s your opinion?” asked board Chair Stephen Olvany. “You want me to tell 22 families to stay in their apartment?”
Maslan said if the residents wanted to evacuate, they could do so before the flood. Andy Soumelidis, the project engineer with Land-Tech Consultants Inc., said he assumed the town had a flood safety plan in place for the nearby residences and businesses.
But Joseph Canas, a principal engineer with Tighe & Bond hired by the town, reminded the project team of the property’s peculiar location.
“This situation is unique in that there is no dry access. You know, this building is completely in the floodplain,” he said. “I haven’t had that experience before.”
Canas recommended that the fire marshal review the plans from a flood safety perspective, as during a storm, up to 4 feet of water could pool in front of the new building’s entrance.
In order to demolish the current building at 7 Sedgwick Ave. – a former Bank of America office – and to build anew, the project team requested changes to town zoning regulations.
Neighbors who attended the Tuesday public hearing to oppose the changes said flooding was a key concern.
Ed Tovergte, a resident living about 700 feet from the proposed complex, questioned what would happen to the cars parked in the surface-level garage during a flood event.
“If this floodwater is coming in and this first-floor garage is half full of cars in the middle of night … what’s going to happen to this floodwater?” Tovergte asked. “I haven’t seen anything that tells me what happens in that type of a situation.”
Resident Lisa Savage asked the same, reminding attendees of previous storms and Goodwives River flooding.
“Based on my experience of three pretty major floods there and cars floating right up the driveway … how is the drainage system even going to work if it goes into the river?” Savage asked. “The rivers overflow, it’s flooding. Everything was flooded.”
Savage said she was also concerned about potential traffic increases at the “congested and chaotic” intersection of Sedgwick Avenue and Old Kings Highway North.
The bank building sits across from the Goodwives Shopping Center, which features businesses like Stop & Shop, UPS and soon the downtown branch of the post office. Savage also spoke to current traffic conditions at the busy intersection.
“No one stops at the stop signs,” Savage said. “They are pause signs, or just ‘barely slow down but keep going’ signs.”
According to a traffic report by the developer’s consultant, SLR International Corporation, the apartment complex should not have a significant impact on nearby traffic as it is expected to generate “less traffic than the prior bank use.”
To improve safety in the area, the consultants recommended an additional stop sign and crosswalk at the intersection.
Olvany also questioned the need for the application itself, which called for allowing third-floor apartments so long as the developer designates 25 percent of them as “affordable,” and increasing the maximum permitted floor area of an apartment from 1,000 square feet to 2,000 in the Central Business District.
Olvany referenced three separate conversations the project team had with Darien’s Architectural Review Board, in which the board recommended building a public plaza to earn the third-floor apartments in 2019, 2022 and 2023. After all three meetings, the board issued an “unfavorable” report.
“For a third floor, you need a plaza,” Olvany said.
Under current zoning regulations in the business district, the commission may allow a three-story building so long as the owner develops a plaza or mall open to the general public. But Maslan said there was another way.
“There are two independent ways of getting a third floor in the Central Business District. One is to have a public plaza,” he said. “…The other way to do it is under the inclusionary zoning regulations.”
Maslan said the inclusionary zoning regulations – which are supposed to encourage the development of “below market rate” apartments – allows a third floor so long as 25 percent of its units are affordable. For 7 Sedgwick Ave., the developer has suggested pricing the rent at 80 percent of the state median income for five apartments.
The developer applied for the amendment to clarify whether the rule applies in the Central Business District, Maslan said.
“All the regulation change does is clarify that that’s the way to do it,” he explained. “And we did that in the Neighborhood Business Zone.”
“But we didn’t do it in this zone, and we don’t have to do it in this zone,” Olvany responded. “There’s no law that says we have to change it, right?”
Still, Maslan argued the regulations allowed third-floor apartments either through a public plaza or with the affordable apartments. If the developer meets one of those regulations, he said, the project should be approved.
“We’ll see,” Olvany said.
The commission unanimously voted to close the public hearing portion of the application following the meeting.