After Danbury’s career academy encounters new complications, city zoners bend the dimension rules

DANBURY — The city’s plans to retrofit a corporate campus into a career academy for 1,400 upper grade students ran into new complications as soon as the city received permission to rezone the 24-acre site from industrial to residential, and thereby permit the school.

“We did just go in and revise the zone to a residential zone which unfortunately drove us to have to get (a) variance (for) the building height from 52 feet to 55 feet,” said Antonio Iadarola, the city engineer, during a public hearing earlier this month. “The other thing is in the (residential) zone we are really only allowed to have a three-story, but the existing building is a four-story, so unfortunately due to the change in the zoning, it does require us to have you endorse the existing condition of the four-story building that is currently out there right now.”

And that wasn’t all.

“The (side yard) setback for a (residential) zone is 50 feet but unfortunately we only have 38 feet,” Iadarola said. “This is an existing condition.”

Iadarola further had to dispel concern that the city was adding two stories atop the existing building in a residential zone.

“I had several calls where people thought we were raising the height of the building 20 feet,” Iadarola said. “That is not the case at all.”

People may have gotten that idea because the city’s variance application said it proposed to increase the height of the building from 35 feet to 55 feet.

The good news is the Zoning Board of Appeals was more than willing to bend the rules to accommodate the city’s most important infrastructure project. The bad news is the Zoning Board of Appeals didn’t follow its own rules when it approved the variances on Jan. 12.

As a result, zoners had to call a special meeting a week later to revote and correct the technical error.

ZBA Vice Chairman Juan Rivas called it “a technical error that transpired at the meeting of Jan. 12 where two alternates who voted favorably on the variance request were not seated by the chair to vote as regular members.”

If it sounds like the city is pressed for time, it is.

Leaders acknowledged earlier this week that the city will miss the career academy’s target opening date of August 2024, and the $164 million project will not be ready until the start of the next school year in August 2025.

That means city schools will have to suffer another year of overcrowding in a district that was counting on a new high school and a new middle school to start the 2024-2025 academic year.

The reason: failed negotiations with The Summit in February 2022 to locate the career academy at the 1.2-million-square-foot complex sent the city scrambling for an alternative with no room for error. Although the city promptly found a “better fit” at the former Cartus Corp. site on Apple Ridge Road, it took four months for the seller to remove a non-development deed restriction on 12 acres of the property, which the city insisted on before buying it.

That was four months the city didn’t have.

“Although we anticipate being able to finish the project well before August of 2025, you can’t open up a school of this size in mid-year,” Iadarola told The News-Times this week.

Schools Superintendent Kevin Walston said the district planned to implement the career academy model in 2024-25, but without the new west side facility.

Meanwhile the city continues its plans to retrofit the 260,000-square-foot office building overlooking Danbury Fair mall into a high school and middle school.

On Wednesday, Danbury’s Environmental Impact Commission gave the city the green light to build near environmentally sensitive land.

In addition to the two schools, blueprints call for new district offices and the add-on construction of a gymnasium.

“This project will not have any immediate or direct impact on the wetlands,” Iadarola told the environmental commission. “All the work on this project is in the 100 foot (buffer) and consists of removing pavement and putting down new pavement, converting existing pavement into grass area and restoring the storm water basins to their original configuration.”

Reach Rob Ryser at or 203-731-3342