Early last week GOOD Morning Wilton was invited to sit down for another Q&A interview with Jim Fieber, whose Fieber Group real estate development company owns 183 Ridgefield Rd., the property at the center of the debate about higher density housing in Wilton. Most recently, there have been two very heated public meetings of the Planning & Zoning Commission drawing larger than usual crowds of residents mostly opposed to current zoning regulations which allow higher density age restricted housing on Ridgefield Rd..
Accompanying Fieber at the interview was Wes Stout (pictured right, above), a planner and landscape architect who is working with Fieber’s 183 Ridgefield Rd. LLC on the development project planned for the property. Stout, a former Ridgefield Rd. resident who now lives in New Canaan, spoke very briefly at the most recent public hearing to the objection of several people in the audience who felt a non-resident shouldn’t be permitted to offer comment. Fieber told us that he wanted Stout to be able to participate in our interview.
Of importance, the Q&A was conducted Tuesday morning, June 6, before word came of a lawsuit filed that same day, against the town and several town officials regarding the property at 183 Ridgefield Rd.. We have since reached out to ask Fieber about the lawsuit, but he declined to comment.
What follows is the Q&A from Tuesday:
Jim Fieber: When I speak, people identify me with 183 Ridgefield Rd., understandably so. But I also have things to say as someone who has lived here in Wilton a long time.
Wes used to live a couple doors down from this property, he’s the best planner in Southwestern Fairfield County. To me the issue really is not what’s going to happen at 183 Ridgefield Rd; the issue is, what is Wilton going to be in another 10, 20, 30 years? What are we going to be like prospectively? My two sons, who wanted to speak at the last meeting–they are 36 years old, and spent their entire lives growing up in Wilton, from nursery school all the way through high school–they wanted to talk about the changes they’ve seen in town over their lifespan.
For people to take the position that we live in a static environment and that we’re not going to have change are fooling themselves because we won’t survive. It’s no different than the state of CT right now with our fiscal woes, which have become national news and reported every single day in the Wall Street Journal, which has caused also a downgrade in our credit rating, making it more expensive to borrow. Wilton will find itself in the same position if we don’t have progress. Progress is development, progress is change. It has to be responsible development and responsible change. What this commission did is they exercised their planning function, they looked forward and they looked at the changing demographics in this town and responded to that. For people to get up in public hearings and say, ‘We don’t care about the old people, they’re not going to stay here, they’re all going to go to Florida,’ that is so far from the truth. There are statistics on people who are 55 and older, and the vast majority of people stay right here. Most people do not leave for Florida, North Carolina and other parts. Even those who do often have connections they maintain here. That is what this commission did–they provided a vehicle to provide a diverse housing type so that people can maintain homes or connections here, in terms of homes, that are more suitable for people in that demographic.
GOOD Morning Wilton: “That demographic”–what is the demographic you’re targeting? Who you describe and what people at the meetings have described seem to be very different images. Who do you have in mind as a resident or potential buyer?
Fieber: There are two distinct demographic groups that have been referred to in the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development–people who are 55-65 and people who are 65-and-older.
The fact is, people who are 55-75 years old and even older live extremely active and vital lives, and often work during that entire 20-year period. People were getting up and talking about a 92 year old person who got into a traffic accident and we don’t want those people on Ridgefield Rd. because it’s going to lead to further traffic accidents.
That is not the group we’re talking about, nor was it the group that was contemplated by the planning function of the Commission for single family, detached low-density housing on certain sites that may be appropriate. That is not the group. This is for people like myself, like Wes, who are in our late 50s, early 60s, whose kids have gone off to college or graduated, supporting themselves, and we now find ourselves with homes on two acres or more of land, and we have interests such that we don’t want to spend as much time as we may have in these larger homes with a lot of maintenance outside. We want to live in a community with people who are similar, at similar points in our lives–it becomes a social network as well. It is something I have personal experience with, because we’ve built a number of large community that cater to this age group.
GMW: Age group? People are having a hard time reconciling this 55-and-older age group with homes that cost $1M-$1.5M homes on a higher density, tighter living space. Are there people who are looking for that in CT right now?
Fieber: First of all, it is very presumptuous to talk about how these homes will be priced. The pricing of the homes is partially dependent upon what sort of density you can get on a parcel of land. The Commission proscribed a regulation that was up to three units per acre, which is a very fair density. It is certainly not what the signs around town refer to as ‘high density housing.’
Wes has referred to growing up in a quarter-acre subdivision. If you grow up in Long Island, suburban Chicago and many other areas of this country, including many towns in Fairfield County–
Wes Stout: Darien, New Canaan, Greenwich, they have one-third, one-half, one quarter acre zoning. And it filters out from a town center. Wilton’s constrained by the geography and the infrastructure. Route 33, Route 7, bisecting things, and Wilton Center is not on Rte. 7. So you’ve got parallel commercial development, bifurcated by the railroad line, and it doesn’t set up to have a concentric higher density, lower, lower, building out from town, even into four-acre zones, which Greenwich and New Canaan have on their outer perimeter. There’s an inherent structural challenge in Wilton to build the type of community that does what Jim is talking about.
We’re talking about the “empty nester.” But actually the growing populations [in CT] are the 24-34 and the 55-and-up. The ones that want the big houses are the 35-55s. People like us that have been here 20, 25, 30 years, have worked our way up. I had my starter home up on Catalpa Rd., (I actually rented a home on Sharp Hill Rd. before that), then I moved to Ridgefield Rd. (in walking distance to where Mrs. Mavis lives) but I don’t need that anymore. I can’t work every weekend on my house. I have no interest in it. I don’t need a basketball hoop for my kids that sits there empty. It’s life.
What Wilton is starving for is the ability to provide housing for that up to age 35, out of college, getting started [demographic], where you need more of a starter home. And then there’s a big gap where you have a lot of two-are homes for sale endlessly. And then we need to fill in from the 55-and-up, who generally don’t want two-plus acres, a long driveway, generator, all the sprinkler systems, play sets, swimming pools. They don’t need that. They’ve got other options and choose to spend their time in different places.
Fieber: The other cohort that’s projected to grow rapidly, [24-34], the town would do just as well from a planning function to put into effect certain regulations that would encourage that sort of housing also. That group cares very little about having two acres. That group would be very happy to live in a cluster format. In fact, the State of Connecticut has stated as a goal for every town for wise land use planning, to use cluster formats rather than the typical two-acre format. Young people who are coming out of urban centers to start families, would be very happy to live in a community.
Stout: Quarter-acre, eighth-of-an-acre, a duplex.
Fieber: Picture the problems in Wilton now. My family grew up on Drum Hill Rd.. We could not take our babies and put them in a carriage and walk Drum Hill Rd.. It was an impossibility, it would be suicidal because it’s curvy, people drive it, there are blind spots. But if you had neighborhood like in Darien, New Canaan, Westport, Greenwich has tons–because the town evolved from a planning perspective properly with concentric zones–then young people would be attracted, they would find other young people, find things in common. We could encourage communities to evolve for the younger set also.
Here we have an opportunity to do something really good for another group of people who are looking for communities to live in with just less housing maintenance concerns, and a floor plan that caters to people who may not want to do stairs in the future, who have the ability not to look at congregate care, for example, or other sorts of–
Stout: That’s 10 or 20 years later.
GMW: But, I would bet there are a lot of people, who even were at the last meeting, who wouldn’t argue against what you’re talking about with those needs, but their prime criticism is, ‘Not on Ridgefield Rd., not on Ridgefield Rd., not on Ridgefield Rd..’
Fieber: [Hands over a paper copy of an email]: I am handing you a letter out of all the letters that were handed into the Commission–this one was submitted to Scott Lawrence, the vice chair of the Commission–this one addresses your question as well as anybody possibly could. It’s from [Don Sauvigne] a respected member of the community who chairs the Police Commission, he’s lived here a long time, and I think he has identified the answer to your question as succinctly as possible.
I encourage you to speak to speak to Don, I encourage you to quote from his letter–it’s public record–this is the approach that reflects the most important thing and also conveys the Commission’s most important function. The Commission’s job is to take a look at what’s best for the entire community of Wilton.
Stout: That’s their mandate, by the state’s statutes. They’re given the primary responsibility to put the Plan of Conservation and Development into place, review it at least every 10 years, update it. They do phone surveys to the town, they identified that 81% of the town supported higher density for senior living opportunities. It’s all right there [pointing to a copy of Wilton’s 2010 POCD]. If the debate only comes down to Rte. 33, I see Rte. 33 as a whole that has two components really–Ridgefield Rd. and Westport Rd.–maybe they have different personalities but they do exactly the same thing: they carry a lot of people, they’re maintained by the state in an equal way, managed by the state in an equal way, and people use them identically.
Jim has traffic numbers that seem to prove out that Ridgefield Rd. has a lower accident rate per mile than Westport Rd. does. I see Rte. 33 as an arterial road that has the component that merges with Danbury Rd. for a time, because land use developed over 300 years here, and continues on from Danbury Rd. to Ridgefield Rd..
It talks to the fact that people use them similarly, they expect to use it similarly, and they’re maintained by the state in the same fashion. Really, it’s more a matter of, senior housing is probably best within a reasonable distance from downtown. I don’t see this happening on the Ridgefield/Wilton town line. I’ve lived on Ridgefield Rd., I’ve driven Ridgefield Rd. literally thousands of times. You’re not going to put a 10-, 20-, 30-unit senior housing development right on the Ridgefield/Wilton town line. It’s too remote, it’s not serviceable.
GMW: So when people talked about this impacting the values of their homes on Ridgefield Rd., further out on that concentric circle concept you talked about, you’re telling those people further out on Ridgefield Rd. that developers like Mr. Fieber are not going to be interested in their properties because they’re too far out?
Stout: It’s too far out, it’s actually in what they call the Primary Sewer Avoidance Area, because it’s in a watershed district. Lower Ridgefield Rd. and Westport Rd. are not in a sewer avoidance area because their watershed does not contribute into the drinking water supply.
GMW: Last time we talked, you spoke about why the number of residences at 16 is workable on that property because you don’t have to be on a sewer line for 16, correct?
Fieber: If I may just add to what Wes said first, there are two considerations: one is where can we build these sorts of communities that can cater to the age group that we’ve now defined as “active adult.” When Wes did his study, looking at the center of Wilton there are really only three large sites that are suitable for this sort of development on either Westport Rd., Danbury Rd. or Ridgefield Rd.. If we do want to service these folks, there are very, very few opportunities to do so.
That being said, there are financial considerations in terms of developing a community like this, and there are also location sensitivities. You want to be close to town but it does not need to be in town. I’ve never built a community like this in town; they’ve always been more than a mile outside of town because driving for somebody 55 or 65 is not a big deal.
What those people care about is a community. They don’t want to live in three cluster homes, on a three-acre site or something like that, they want to have a community, in the true sense of what that means. Since there are very, very few opportunities, those sites have to be looked at very favorable for this sort of development.
GMW: Can you identify the three “suitable large sites?”
Stout: Well, I wanted to make a point, a fact–90% of the land is zoned for single family residences, 97% of the land area in town, and that’s for one- and two-acre development. Less than 1.0% is for a higher density than that. So, we’re down to less than 1.0% of the potential available land is even zoned for something higher than one-acre zoning.
GMW: That’s where AROD comes in.
Stout: And business and retail are zoned less than 3.0%, so they make up the balance. But the lowest component is where you have the ability to elevate that density.
Fieber: Wes, can you talk about the importance of having that diversity? We only have 1.0% of our land stock zoned for denser than single family. What does that mean for a community in terms of the real estate market, growth of the grand list, dynamics of real estate sales?
Stout: Real estate is slower, because it’s all basically two-acre zone houses that are available. The other stat I want to bring up is, there’s 20 times more open space in this town than there is land that’s zoned for multi-family housing. I’m not saying that AROD is multi-family housing; they’re a little bit closer than two-acre detached. I’m saying there’s 20 times more open space than there is the ability to build at some greater density.
That tells you that 20 times value–3,200 acres–is off the tax rolls, it’s off of the grand list.
GMW: In other words, you’re saying Wilton already has enough protected land?
Stout: We’ve got a ton–20% is open land area. And nobody really uses the open space very much. There aren’t great trail systems. There’s no big community pond–you’ve got a little one here in town but it’s not real an open space parcel. The land use for open space is well covered. What’s not well-covered are housing options and diversity of housing is what makes a community. You’ve got to have work force housing, you’ve got to have a place for teachers to live, firemen. You have to have the ability for those people to move up through the chain. So that by 20-25 they’re getting their careers started; by 35 they’re getting some legs, they’re starting to have kids, then they want the two-acre house.
I sold my house after raising my two kids there. Who’d I sell it to? A young family moving from Greenwich with three kids. So, they have three kids in the school system at $19,000 a head–$57,000 a year to put their three kids through school. I know they aren’t paying $57,000 a year in taxes. So, they are tax negative to the town–we’re looking for the opportunity to be tax positive. The differential can be anywhere between $20- to $50,000, depending on how many kids are in the house.
Wilton has been slow to change. I’ve been here over 25 years. The underlying issue is, what’s best for Wilton as a whole? What’s best for this community? As Jim said, what’s it going to be in 10 or 20 years? Something has to change.
Fieber: I know probably one-third of the people who are opposing AROD. And Wilton does have an unusual stock of very handsome homes that were built more than 150 years ago. And a lot of those homes happen to be located in Ridgefield Rd. Wilton has also had a very, very active historical society, one of the most active and well-known in the state. There are people who live in this town, who are very passionate about their historic homes and the history of this town. The signs you see posted along the road now is something to the effect of, “Respect Wilton’s History” or “Save our Scenic Road.”
There is a happy medium between people who love to live in historic homes and having progress in town. You can’t stay in a static position, because many of those people would have wished that their colonial homes along Ridgefield Rd. were the only homes that were built and the rest of Wilton remained historic farmland. We are a long way from there. We are a suburban community. We cannot lose touch with the fact that we have fiscal responsibilities to support a school system, Fire Department, other public safety equipment, Police. We have a budget that’s substantial, we have a Grand List that’s static, people who work here expect raises, people expect our school system to excel. How do you do that without also having a Grand List that also rises a commensurate amount with the budget of the town?
Responsible progress goes a long way toward answering that fiscal need.
Stout: Slow to change inhibits progress. Like it or not, Wilton competes with every other community that it touches. It competes in schools, on the athletic fields, on amenities–that Wilton is sorely lacking–and taxes. Wilton doesn’t shine in any of those comparisons. There are much more favorable tax mil rates even in Norwalk, Greenwich, Darien, New Canaan. The Grand List has to grow is to support the economics of fiscal responsibility.
GMW: So the flip side of that. If we don’t shine in any of those areas, who is going to want to come and live here, and buy any of your properties? Are you expecting your buyers to all come from Wilton, who are all downsizing? Why build these if Wilton isn’t the place that shines?
Fieber: Because there is a complete void in this housing type. The Commission in their planning function recognized there was a tremendous void in that area. River Ridge, which is an example of this type of housing, sold extremely quickly. The resales, as soon as there’s a unit on the market, it sells quickly.
GMW: Those are the statistics? That resale happens very, very quickly?
Stout: I know two people who moved in there, with exact parallel to my age kids. They sold their house on Sturges Ridge and moved up there. I know another fellow I play golf with, they moved out of Weston because they thought it would be wonderful to walk to town or be within a community. Those are the people who will come here. They’re downsizing, they want some simplicity. And they’re going to want the AROD product, whether it’s Jim’s or Bill’s or whomever. There’s going to be a demand for this project.
We’re not talking about building 300, 400, 500 units of this stuff. But we have 19,000 residents in town.
Fieber: River Ridge was built by Toll Brothers, they’re a national organization. Nobody squealed about the fact that they were out of town developers. Numerous people got up in the public hearing about the AROD application and talked about 183 Ridgefield Rd., which is not a proper subject for this public hearing, and talked about how it was going to be developed by an out of town developer.
I can honestly say that I’ve lived in Wilton for well over 33 years. I am not an out of town developer. However I am personally offended that anybody would have any problem with anybody from out of town developing in Wilton.
GMW: I want to go back to those three identified locations, the sites that could be developed?
Fieber: It’s on page 10 of Wes’ report:
“In reviewing the Land Use Map, the 183 property appears to be just one of two or three ‘Undeveloped’ parcels within 1 mile of Wilton Center and fronting on Danbury Road, Westport Road or Ridgefield Road.”
Stout: That’s from looking at this [gestures to a copy of the Wilton Plan of Conversation and Development]. On page 15, it shows white parcels that are undeveloped, and if you go up Ridgefield Rd. there’s clearly not a lot of white. If the town is serious about improving the Grand List in any way, there just aren’t that many opportunities.
Fieber: If you pass this resolution and you want to encourage housing, pursuant to your planning function, if there’s no possible place for it to be built, what was the point of passing the legislation? Now granted there are a lot of possible places where it could be built far from the town center, where I submit to you it’s not economically feasible. The reason being that you would have to consolidate two 2-acre parcels. Assuming the homes are $1 million each, that’s $2 million for the dirt. For six units, the economics would never work out.
You really need larger parcels. You also need a lot of land, because I know what it takes to build one of these communities.
GMW: So the argument that people made at the public hearings about developers seeing AROD as the way in to make offers to a few property owners–are the economics there, once you start getting to four or five properties?
Fieber: The economics are not there because the dirt would be too expensive to build a community like this. I acknowledge the fear that is out there among people, and they’re asking a very good question in that regard and that’s why, when one of the commissioners asked Bob Nerney whether this can be an overlay zone, it was a very, very thoughtful question. And the way the Commission did it makes a lot of sense. Because once you get the zoning for AROD, they get to scrutinize the site plan in the way of a special permit.
As I believe both commissioners Fiteni and Lawrence stated, just because you can get three units doesn’t mean that that’s what the site plan is going to generate.
GMW: So, you’re saying that this parcel at 183 Ridgefield Rd. is, for lack of a better word, a ‘perfect storm,’ and unusual in that the economics worked out, the location was good, that it was available and nobody else wanted to or did buy it?
Stout: In 2010, the town defined it as ‘open space priority.’ For many years the town has had on its radar screen that it should look at this parcel. And they passed on it. Maybe because it’s because we already have 20% of the town as open space. Probably because they said, ‘We should have it on the Grand List rather than not have it on the Grand List.’
Fieber: It’s more than unlikely, the probability is almost nil that Ridgefield Rd. would become a corridor for developers to target and consolidate properties. Unfortunately, that rational appraisal of is obscured by the fact that–and Don laid it out best in his letter–is that you’re hearing from people who truly are not community minded. All they are is interested in their own agenda. When you have the person leading that opposition living between Middlebrook Farm Rd. and our site, it doesn’t help that person’s personal goals that the best site for development under AROD just happens to be in her neighborhood.
It’s not surprising that the people who are against development live in historic homes and who fashion the town as staying as close to its historic roots as possible. There are ways to do that and still allow responsible development under the AROD regulation. That’s what we’re talking about here–responsible development under AROD. We’re not talking about repealing one road from the AROD regulation without giving any site an opportunity to prove itself as a responsible place for this sort of development.
GMW: And your application for a zone change to AROD for 183 Ridgefield Rd. is scheduled also for June 12?
Fieber: We’re not going forward with it on Monday. The reason why is because when the application was made to repeal that portion of AROD that affects properties along Ridgefield Rd., to preserve our rights under the existing regulation we filed a zone change application. We much prefer to file a zone change application, together with a site plan application so that the public and the commission can both understand what our intentions are.
If the commission exercises what I would expect is the proper way to approach this, is that the application to repeal Ridgefield Rd. [from the AROD regulation] is rejected, in that case, we would not go forward at all with our zone change application until such time as we have fully developed a site plan application to go hand in hand with it, so the commissioners could see the density we’re proposing.
GMW: Anything else you want to add?
Fieber: Another matter that was discussed was that the Commission’s procedures were suspect for some reason. Mr. Nerney was interviewed by you in March, and in that interview he made it absolutely clear that the extent of discussions and the number of meetings where discussions were had on AROD, before the matter ever came up for consideration for voting. And how the actual texts of those regulations were put together.
The Commission drafted that legislation themselves, and the insertion that it was drafted by or contributed to by others, at least as far as I know, is in accurate.
In Wes’ [planning] report [below, click to enlarge], he outlines the discussions that occurred and the history, all that occurred. Meeting by meeting, which commissioner said what. Another issue, which has been misspoken by many people–it’s even in the minutes–they’re stating Ridgefield Rd. was never contemplated or never discussed. It’s 100% wrong, it was clearly discussed. It also talks about why there was an overlay zone, that some people objected to. It was commissioner [Peter] Shiue who inquired whether or not they couldn’t just do it as an overlay zone, so that as many parcels as possible could be considered. It seemed almost like the commission was willing to go much farther than just these three roads.
Fieber: It’s almost superfluous that it’s age-restricted housing. If you build housing that’s only appropriate for a certain age group, that age group is going to buy. These homes are specifically designed with people 55-and-older in mind so that the amenities and the layout of these homes are very different than you would find in your five-bedroom colonial home, which is the most common type of house you’ll find, scattered around Wilton.
GMW: Typically, isn’t the process, when a developer of a project wants to propose a project and it deviates somewhat from the town’s ordinances, the attorney for the developer comes in and proposes a change.
Stout: Or a variance. It’s the most common tool to make an adjustment. What we’re talking about here is a force of change. That’s the opportunity to be something different.
We’ve written new regulations in other towns–Darien adopted a higher density, age restricted development, that just got completed, it’s beautiful, they doubled the density.
GMW: And that was generated by?
Stout: We went in with an age restricted regulation, the same thing that’s happened here, and it was adopted with a site plan.
GMW: So it’s not an unusual process for an attorney and developer to say, ‘Here’s what we’d like to propose…’?
Fieber: In this instance it was far removed from that though, because what happened was during the campaign for first selectmen, our first selectman campaigned on a pro-development platform, and specifically mentioned in numerous articles and speeches, that she would like to see responsible age-restricted development as one of the growth areas here in town. Because she’s familiar with our POCD, she wants diversity of housing type, and she knows we have an aging community.
As a result of that, our organization and at least two other building organizations I’m familiar with, had an interest of seeing age restricted regulations being developed here in town. That is a common pathway for change to occur.
It’s not unusual for how legislation gets passed in Hartford and Washington DC, that’s why there’s a lobby industry.
GMW: People questioned the first selectman, that it backfired on her in discussions about 183.
Fieber: I don’t think it backfired on her. People scrutinized her and found that her intentions were pure, and that she also represents the interests of the entire community. Because you disagree with her on a specific issue doesn’t mean that you’re right and she’s wrong. And it also is part of the natural discourse in a town where people have many different opinions.
But at the same time we live in a community and there are community interests that should be more important and put at a higher level than the interests of a few people.
Stout: That’s why we have a special permit and the zone change permit as well, so it’s not pro forma, and that it gets scrutinized.
This is a positive for the potential future of Wilton, and really could be a powerful and attractive asset for the town, to enhance the future of its current residents and its aging population.