Planning & Zoning Commission Votes Unanimously on “Attics & Basements” Proposal

About 20 members of the public waited over five hours for the long-awaited decision from the Planning & Zoning commission on proposed changes to the way Floor Area Ratio is calculated for the attics and basements of homes in Greenwich.

It was well after midnight when commissioners discussed the proposal, noting that the text amendment proposal is not like a site plan approval.

Specifically, the commission could not approve some  parts of the proposal even if they wanted to. Changes to the application can only be made by the applicant and cannot be made as a condition of approval.

The commissioners voted unanimously to deny the proposal, but they acknowledged it contained many positive components.

The commission directed staff to give priority to reviewing the proposed adjustments.

“The commission feels we’re very close at this time and wants me to continue to working,” Katie Deluca said on WGCH on Wednesday morning.

“There was so much positive that came out of it, and hopefully minor changes can be made to the language that would allow staff to then submit an application for public comment and public hearing within short order,” she said.

The proposal, which had been the subject of crowded public hearings, was introduced by Theresa Hatton, who is a Greenwich resident and director of the Greenwich Association of Realtors.

Before the proposal was opened for discussion by the commission, Mr. Maitland, chair of the commission, went through point by point to outline his concerns.

He said there had been considerable consideration before Floor Area Ratio formula was submitted as a replacement for coverage.

“Per the POCD, this is predominantly a residential community, and naturally how we develop and redevelop, and impact our neighbors is of paramount importance,” Maitland said.

Since the late 1960s there have been periods of adjustment to the FAR. The most notable was in 2002 when the commission reduced FAR by 10% in most zones, and added FAR in RA2 and RA4 zones.

Also in the same time period, Maitland said there was a move away from looking at use of space to addressing the question as to whether it contributed to bulk.

The commission chair said that in order to reach that goal, the use of the term ‘grade plane’ came into play, and that it continues to be of use in the building code.

“No longer was it about whether space was finished, but rather whether it was above or below, determined by the grade plane,” Maitland said.

Maitland continued, saying that the 2009 POCD states that land use agencies should review the extensive manipulation of existing topography by the use of grade plane walls, and recommends considering regulations to prevent significant grade alterations and to limit the height of retaining walls.

He said there is agreement with the applicant on four major causes of grade manipulation:

  • The complex topography of the Town of Greenwich
  • The owners’ desire for level sites, or other specific requirements
  • The drainage manual issued in 2012, which incorporated low impact development
  • Town regulations for use of grade plane to determine building heights, number of stories and bulk controls

Grade Plane Walls
Maitland said the commission had heard from a variety of residents over the last several years that the heights and number of grade plane walls on property lines were altering their neighborhoods’ character.

“The applicant agreed at the November meeting they were also concerned about this, but their application did not show how it would accomplish this goal on either the front, rear or side property lines,” he said.

Mr. Maitland cited a memo from Greenwich’s Conservation Director Denise Savageau in January strongly recommending that the P&Z commission deny the proposal and continue its work on the grade plane regulation.

Attics and Basements
On the applicant’s proposal to redefine when an attic is considered a story, raising it from 40 percent of the story beneath it, to 50 percent of the story beneath it, Maitland said, “This will increase the bulk of the roof since rafters will be further spread apart. I find no reason why this should be done.”

Regarding what is considered a story above grade, Maitland took issue with the applicant’s proposal to eliminate one of three tests to determine what determines a story.

“They proposed to eliminate number one, which reads ‘more than 5 ft above the grade plane,” he said, adding that this standard is part of the international residential code, which has been adopted by the state of Connecticut.

“The concept of a story above grade is correctly applied to a basement. I believe the elimination of this standard to be inappropriate,” Maitland said, arguing that a change from 30% of basement wall to 50% exposed above finished grade would give the appearance of additional bulk.

He said the current standard was set in response to the complaints from the public about the amount of basement walls exposed.

Regarding the schedule of building heights, the applicant sought to increase maximum height from 35 ft to 37.5 ft in R6, R7 and R12 zones. These zones comprise 58.5% percent of the total residential sites in town.

“There are also a lot of undersized lots in the R6 zone,” Mr. Maitland continued, adding, “To increase the bulk in these zones is inappropriate and serves no planning purpose that I’m aware of.”

Maitland balked at the applicant’s suggestion that if the 50% exclusion is not enough, then engineered trusses can be employed.

“It is difficult to understand the applicant’s use of engineered trusses to suit their needs here, to disqualify an area in the attic when they presented these elements previously as dangerous,” he said.

He said an unintended consequence would be that additional FAR would be transferred to first and second floors, thereby adding to bulk.

During a brief discussion the preceded the vote, commissioner Andy Fox said he was concerned about unintended consequences of not considering attics and basements along at the same time as grade plane walls.

“This application doesn’t affect the wedding cake and retaining walls,” he said. “We keep on picking out one area and then have unintended consequences. I don’t think this change helps mitigate the bulk as we know it.”

Mrs. Alban agreed with Mr. Fox. “I see what you’re saying that we need to tie it together so we get rid of the wedding cake effect.”

“The bigger zones I’m less concerned about,” Mr. Fox said. “I’m more concerned about R6, R7 and R12. The R6 doesn’t need any more bulk, they already got more FAR.”

“The effort was admirable but it needs more thought,” Peter Levy said. “We need to not do it piecemeal. We need to get it right and understand the issue really well.”

After the brief discussion the commission voted unanimously to deny the proposal.

See also: P&Z to Developers of Lake Ave Re-SubDivision with Round Hill Road Driveway: Come Back with More Analysis

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