Call it ‘new math’–how one property can go from a one-home, 13.5 acre site, to a proposed 4-lot subdivision, to a potential 35-unit, age-restricted housing development.
That’s the journey 183 Ridgefield Rd. seems to be taking. The property where the historical, 19th-century Schlichting Homestead was demolished a little less than one year ago, may now become the location for 35 three-bedroom units where no one younger than 21 can live.
The developer, James Feiber, attended last week’s meeting (Feb. 13) of Wilton’s Water Pollution Control Authority, accompanied by his attorney, J. Casey Healy, and Kent McCord, of McCord Engineering Associates. They reviewed plans for the development and a request to extend sewer pipes from Wilton Center up Ridgefield Rd. to serve the proposed development and adjacent properties.
The WPCA is chaired by Wilton’s first selectman, Lynne Vanderslice. The members of the board discussed the project, including asking director of the Department of Public Works Tom Thurkettle to look into some engineering questions before following CT General Statutes (18-24), and voting 4-0 to refer the matter to the Planning & Zoning Commission.
Even though the property is located in a residential 2-acre zone, new zoning regulations for age-restricted housing were passed last year to permit these types of developments on property that fronts Danbury Rd., Westport Rd. or Ridgefield Rd., with a special permit and an approved site plan.
Depending on when Planning & Zoning responds with their report on the site, the WPCA will then consider the sewer request at the next possible date.
Why Age Restricted Developments Like This Are Proposed–Especially in Wilton
There’s one major reason town officials say developers are interested in building these types of multi-unit developments targeted at older buyers: demand driven by changing demographics, both within Wilton as well as throughout Connecticut.
According to statistics compiled by Vanderslice, Wilton’s 55-and-older population grew by 34-percent between 2000-2015 (and Fairfield County’s growth was 26-percent). That last year, the 65-and-older population was approximately the same as the 9-and-under population–they’re now equal, whereas, say 50 years ago, school-aged children outnumbered seniors. The projections are that the older demographic will continue to increase, while the younger one shrinks.
“As a society, we’re having this huge shift happen, and what are we doing as communities to deal with it,” asks Vanderslice.
Not only is this proposal at 183 Ridgefield Rd. percolating, but there’s another project targeted at seniors in the works at the former Young’s Nursery parcel at 211 Danbury Rd. that is slated to be developed as an assisted living facility. In addition to assisted living, other housing types that are in demand in CT include age-restricted housing (for 55-and-older), and continuing care retirement communities (independent living-to-assisted living-to-skilled nursing care).
“The kind of housing that people in that age range are looking for is different that the kind of housing you want when you’re younger, and there is a shortage in Fairfield County of these kinds of residences. I’m hearing it from that population in Wilton, I’m hearing it from developers, and I’m living it with my own father–all we’re getting is wait lists. It is true, and that’s why everyone wants to build these,” Vanderslice explains.
Something to keep in mind is that the demand for these senior living options comes from outside of Wilton as well, especially with few similar options in surrounding communities–there are none in Westport, for example. There are several factors that make Wilton appealing to developers, says Vanderslice: available, developable land; less traffic than surrounding communities (an advantage to seniors); easy access to medical centers (Danbury Hospital, Norwalk Hospital, Stamford Health Care newly opened in Wilton, and another medical building being developed across from Town Hall); access to transportation and train to NYC; Wilton Library; walking trails; walkable downtown.
“If you want to stay in Fairfield County, and you want to leave your home, with an option to either downsizing into a townhouse or go into a retirement care communities, Wilton is a great place for that,” Vanderslice says.
Now, Consider Wilton’s Finances
With developers showing interest in Wilton as a place to situate these kinds of developments, it may provide at least a partial answer to some of the fiscal problems the town is facing.
“We’ve got stagnant grand list growth, we’ve got uncertainty about the fiscal health of the state which is creating questions about us; and yet we have developers knocking on the door who want to put these properties that are in demand in our town,” Vanderslice says.
Of course something town officials will have to keep in mind is how important it is to look down the road and account for how these potential population shifts will impact the services the town is required to provide. Do sidewalks have to be considered? Does Wilton Social Services need to increase or adjust programs?
“It’s going to mean increased use of the ambulance–we’ve seen that already; it will probably mean some additional spending in the area of social services and senior programs,” Vanderslice acknowledges.
However, not only would potential residents of these adult- and senior-targeted living projects not have children who would be entering the school system–which means they bring no additional school expenses–these new residential developments mean additional tax revenue for the town–to the tune of more than half a million dollars.
“We’re talking about potentially $400,000 to $700,000 a year in additional property taxes. The additional cost, whether it’s additional ambulance runs or senior services programming, are a fraction of the additional money that would come in,” Vanderslice says.
Can Wilton Accept Change
Combine that revenue potential with the changing demographics and demand for additional senior housing as well as with the interest builders have in Wilton, and it means some big decision-making for town residents: what changes are they willing to accept in order to keep their own taxes from growing out of control? Will they accept these types of developments, in areas that are closer to residential zones, and that may replace, for example, a 19th century historical building on 13.5 acres?
“We’re sitting here with this major budget issue, several years of stagnant growth, and now we have some opportunities. With the societal change, as a community we have to ask ourselves, are we going to be forward thinking? Are we going to recognize what’s happening in the greater society and what’s happening within Wilton and Fairfield County, recognize the aging and be part of the effort to adjust to that? Some of these projects might be put into locations that we previously might not have considered for such uses. But if the demand is for this kind of housing, and the demand is going to increase, I think you have to look at the suburb-designed-for-growing-single-families model and think about adjusting it,” says Vanderslice.
It may mean a choice that makes some residents very uncomfortable–whether it’s neighbors directly impacted or residents upset at the town’s ‘changing character’ or the loss of historical buildings.
“Some people will be impacted more, based on where they live. There are going to be neighbors who will not want it in their neighborhood. But look at the development at Young’s–the developer met with neighbors and when they saw what he offered versus what other potential uses for the property were, they decided to support this project,” Vanderslice says.
Unless advocates for saving properties like 183 Ridgefield Rd. can come up with a way to fundraise to support preservation, the reality is that little can be done if a property owner wishes to do otherwise.