P&Z Watch: Commission Unanimously Approves CMS Municipal Improvement; Moves Site Plan to Final

On Tuesday night the Greenwich Planning & Zoning Commission voted unanimously to approve Municipal Improvement status for a proposed new 125,000 sq ft Central Middle School with bus loop.

They also voted to move the site plan application from preliminary to final.

During public comment the chair Margarita Alban left the meeting to testify before the Appointments committee. In her absence the commission took their votes, though typically votes are taken at the end of the full meeting.

At one point there were 167 people attending via Zoom, which is more than the town hall meeting room accommodates.

The votes to approve were in favor despite many outstanding issues.

The applicant left the meeting pleased, but with abundant homework, including the relocation of a sewer main that the Town Sewer Dept expressed reluctance about.

Also, they must investigate the choice between a geothermal and a gas powered system.

Remaining also the question about the amount of fill required to raise the land by three feet to locate the building, and how much ledge will be required to be removed to build new playing fields which need six ft of soil underneath.

During public comment many parents and stakeholders testified in passionate support of the project.

Many parents brought up the school incident that took place earlier in the day involving what police described as a vague threat, triggering a ‘Secure the Building’ status.

CMA PTA co-president Dina Urso described the incident as “jarring.”

“If nothing else, the new building with its secure entryway, ballistic glass, clear sight lines to the street and entrance would be in compliance with SSIC (School Safety Infrastructure Council) standards,” Urso said.

She said at a PTA membership meeting the previous week there was discussion of the site plan and potential removal of the large rock outcropping and no one raised any objection.

And while many would like to see the rock outcropping preserved, some parents testified they felt its removal would make the campus safer.

Myra Klockenbrink from the Greenwich Sustainability Committee shared data from EMAC indicated the total greenhouse gas emissions in metric tons that the school system emitted for the years ending in 2018 (6208 metric tons) and in 2023 (8133 metric tons) reflected a 31% increase in five years.

“The intergovernmental panel on climate change has indicated that we need to stop emitting carbon into the atmosphere by 2030, or face irreversible  and severe feedback loops that will be catastrophic to all life forms,” Klockenbrink. “We have the intelligence, the ability and the know-how to stop emitting greenhouse gases.”

State Rep Meskers urged approval of the MI, saying the plan reflected goals of the Plan of Conservation and Development.

“Going forward when you speak with the Dept of Public Works in relation to the Dept of Transportation, ask them what our state reps had to say. There tends to be wiggle room  in the Dept of Transportation – the interpretation of what they’re doing  when we come at them with a hammer and ask them to be flexible. I don’t think that DPW has that flexibility.”

Second, he urged investigating a geothermal system.

“There is state and federal funding that needs to be explored should we go that route,” he said. “We need to pry open the state’s coffers to improve the reimbursement versus the general reimbursement rate. I would like to see further commitment there. I think pollution in the future is important.”

Meskers noted he did not have the wherewithal to “fight with the state” for reimbursement without funding from the town.

State Reps Hector Arzeno (D-151) and Rachel Khanna (D-149)  both also spoke in support of the project.

“Keeping the current building open any longer than absolutely necessary is really the lowest bar…The current building was built as a junior high school, not as a middle school, and our building should reflect the best in class standards for our students, not best in class for 1950,” Arzeno said.

Rep Rachel Khanna Greenwich’s schools are what attract families. “Our schools are what attract families to our town and to our state, but that will remain true only if we keep investing in our school buildings.”

Michael Spilo, RTM member who is the representative to the building committee shared opinions on his own behalf.

“I have had children in CMS and am familiar with its shortcomings and support a rebuild,” he said. “In September I became aware that the structural repairs made to the CMS facade were of a temporary nature and have a serviceable life of 5 years. We don’t know the margin of error of this five year estimate.”

Spilo said he was concerned the temporary repair might not withstand the stresses from vibrations created from nearby construction and rock removal, as well as heavy vehicle traffic he said could potentially impact the original wall ties the repairs were made to replace.

Also, he said, “The 2022 building assessment indicated there are other structural issues which may be susceptible to the same stresses and which could cause a catastrophic collapse.”

Many parents testified urging that the children not be relocated to trailers or offsite.

“I’m so blown away by how wonderful a school district we live in. But I am also so horrified by how horrible a facility CMS is,” said Dorothy Simone. “I’m absolutely horrified it was condemned and students displaced for even more than one day.”

“It is absolutely unacceptable for our children to be displaced during construction,” she said.

Ashley Cole, a founding member of the Hillside Road Traffic and Safety commission said the new school was long overdue.

“However, I remain concerned about traffic safety. This area is chock full of schools – all less than a mile from each other. Imagine the conundrum of pedestrians, bike riders and harried parents – everybody all coming and going at roughly the same time,” she said.

Ms Cole urged anticipating potential problems at the intersections of Fairfield Road and Stanwich  and Indian Rock and Orchard. Further she noted sidewalks were decaying and suggested bike paths be built.

“I think traffic safety needs to be stipulated as part of the MI,” Cole urged. “Safe access to and from our public schools is something we can’t ignore.”

Clare Kilgallen who is on the CMS building committee spoke on her own behalf, saying, “Since our formation as a building committee a year ago, in over 100 meetings, we have been deliberate and thoughtful in fulfilling the town charter’s mandates to comply with the ed specs. This is a 22-acre campus. We have to balance and meet as many standards and requirements as possible, with school and pedestrian safety at the forefront.”

She said that working with the architect, owners rep and construction manger, the committee evaluated multiple design options and siting.

“We have had members suggested we look at siting at Pomerance Park,” she added. “We have looked ad different orientations on this campus and addressed that.  I think there is a notion that we are forcing something into an area. That is not the case.”

“It was done with attention and great care,” Kilgallen continued. “We’ve evaluated  the ed specs, costs, safety, ADA, neighbors, pedestrians, bicycles, traffic, buses, cars, parking, trees, wildlife, conservation, energy, parks, sports, drainage, zoning, building code and more. We’ve been super thoughtful. This school will have a connection to the outdoors. There’s so many good things about it. It’s crystal clear that this campus project complies with the POCD.”

While the MI is approved, which means the application can pursue construction funding from the BET, and moves from preliminary to final site plan, there remains plenty of outstanding homework.

Prior to final site plan approval the applicant must review lighting, architecture, landscape, and signage in front of the Architectural Review Committee, provide a more in depth study of energy use and sustainability with a choice of systems, review lighting regs for safety and security, and consult staff on environmental testing results. Also, per sewer division comment, the applicant shall submit a signed letter acknowledging receipt of their P&Z comments and address the sewer main relocation.

Also, per DPW and BETA Group (the P&Z commission’s traffic consultant) the applicant shall provide vehicular movement diagrams and pavement markings and traffic signage. She shall also meet with the police and fire dept to review access and security measures.

Further they have to provide a comprehensive construction phasing plan for the concurrent use of the existing building during construction, site development and demolition.

Voting on the MI and to move the application to final were Peter Levy, Peter Lowe, Arn Welles, Nick Macri, and Mary Jenkins who was standing in for Ms Alban.

In closing remarks, Tony Turner said, “On behalf of the 38,000 students who will walk through the halls of a new Central Middle School over the next 75 years, we thank you very much.”