Tensions were high at Monday’ night’s meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission. With well over 120 people crowded into an overstuffed Brubeck Room that was standing room only, (which wasn’t helped by a congested meeting place, with Wilton Library double booked with the hundreds of children and parents there for the Wilton Schools’ Fine Arts Program show) the meeting didn’t adjourn until close to midnight. That gave time for plenty of fireworks throughout the evening.
[Editor’s note: Due to the very late end to the meeting, a more detailed article will be published Wednesday.]
The applicant, Vicki Mavis, was represented by attorney Christopher Russo, asking commissioners to reconsider their decision to include Ridgefield Rd. as one of three potential places an Age Restricted Overlay District (AROD) floating zone could be located. (The other two are Danbury Rd. and Westport Rd..) Mavis’ application seeks to amend the AROD regulation, approved last November, by eliminating Ridgefield Rd. and to place a moratorium on any zone change applications until the town has the chance to create the next Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), scheduled to happen over the next two years.
Russo used the current POCD to argue as to why Ridgefield Rd. should be disqualified from consideration as an AROD zone, going point by point to assert that the current POCD demonstrates why Ridgefield Rd. actually should be blocked from being an AROD. He discussed points the POCD makes about town character, historic significance and preservation, traffic, high-density versus low-density housing and development and land conservation, to say that the AROD regulation goes against the POCD as it relates to Ridgefield Rd.
In addition there was much discussion about how Ridgefield Rd. was designated as a state scenic highway, and is one of only three in Fairfield County, and that high-density development had the potential for making the road lose any such designation.
Mavis’ application received organizational approval from the Wilton Historic Society (the Board of Trustees chair spoke), the Wilton Land Conservation Trust (the president spoke) and the Historic Property and Historic District Commission chair (whose letter was entered into the record). Highly respected former first selectman and town historian Bob Russell spoke of his support and read the application the town made to the town to make Ridgefield Rd. designated as scenic when he was in office.
Moreover, dozens of members of the public were in attendance in support of Mavis’ application. Speaker after speaker approached the microphone during the public comment section of the meeting to voice vociferous support of halting any potential development on Ridgefield Rd. under AROD permitting.
The discussion was contentious from the start, with P&Z chairman Joe Fiteni eager to establish the commission’s need for order and an emotional crowd unfamiliar with the commission’s more rigid rules and habits. Fiteni was quick to anger, and the crowd at times was quick to yell and call out out-of-turn. There were calls for civility alternating with accusations of unfair process, moans and boos from the crowd. The usually decorous commission couldn’t persuade the assembled to refrain from applause each time a speaker made the case for removing Ridgefield Rd. from the AROD zone regulation.
Many in the crowd expressed their frustration and anger at what they saw as a less-than-transparent process for how Ridgefield Rd. had been included in the AROD regulation in the first place.
They charged that the public notice was inadequate and didn’t specify that Ridgefield Rd. (or the other two roads) was under consideration for the AROD regulation. Ridgefield Rd. neighbors talked about how opening the possibility for high-density housing would significantly damage their property values.
They also intimated that the process had an air of impropriety, asking whether the inclusion of Ridgefield Rd. had been done on the behest of one developer in particular. That prompted an impassioned, angry rebuttal from first selectman Lynne Vanderslice, who defended the town planner Bob Nerney from any accusation of unethical behavior, noting Nerney’s longstanding reputation as an ethical town employee.
Commenters appealed to the emotional and historical side, with one noting that, “residents of our town have been defending Ridgefield Rd. since 1777. We will continue to defend Ridgefield Rd.,” and asked the commissioners, “I hope you will join history.”
Some commissioners made the case that if development had to occur under AROD, it would require developers to have to go through a very strict special permitting application process, during which they would be able to rigorously make sure any application would adhere to the regulations and ordinanced protections in place.
Commissioner Doris Knapp addressed whether or not the POCD from 2010 adequately address whether the kind of development the town might need to consider now is different. “We have to acknowledge the POCD was developed years ago and age-restricted housing was not even on the horizon. We need to look forward, we need to be more open about the type of housing we have in town, and whether or not we can craft age-restricted housing in a way that preserves what we have. The fact that it’s not mentioned in POCD does not mean we should not consider it now.”
Underlying it all was the “pink elephant” as one person called it–the proposed zone change under the AROD regulation that developer James Fieber‘s company had applied for through its 183 Ridgefield Rd. LLC, to develop the parcel at that address. Yesterday, Fieber submitted site drawings for a modified 16-unit age-restricted development, down from the previous 35-unit plan. Commenters were asked to refrain from specifically discussing that parcel.
Also part of the discussion was whether or not 8-30G would impact the discussion, as commissioners pointed out how the affordable housing regulation could trump any discussion whatsoever about a property, and if a developer invoked 8-30G as part of a proposal, it would render the commission “powerless” to impose any restrictions or guidelines at all.
Attorney Russo acknowledged that risk, noting, “We will lose the battle to win the war on the entire Ridgefield Rd..”
The hearing was kept open and will resume at the next meeting, scheduled for May 22–location to be determined.