There was a feeling of deja vu when Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Commission opened its meeting last night (Tuesday, Oct. 10) with a public hearing for a proposal on an Age Restricted Development (AROD) application from the developer of the property at 183 Ridgefield Rd.. The application was proposed after the controversial and much-debated prior AROD regulation was rescinded because of a clerical technicality dealing with how it was legally noticed. Around 100 people were sprinkled around the Clune Center auditorium as the meeting started.

The developer, 183 Ridgefield Rd. LLC and its principal, Jim Fieber, were represented by attorney Casey Healy, who made his pitch for the application as one that “mirrors” the original regulation that P&Z adopted on Nov. 14, 2016–but this time with modifications that he said should make the community more comfortable with the proposal. Among those changes, the application limits the stretch of Ridgefield Rd. where AROD could be considered to the half-mile between Danbury and Drum Hill Rds., reduces the number of units that could be developed, and increased the setback from the road from 50 feet to 100 feet.

Healy brought with him a team of experts (in traffic, planning, etc.) to present the benefits of–or at least to mollify concerns about–the application and the idea of AROD on that stretch of Ridgefield Rd.. They suggested that traffic wouldn’t be significantly impacted, that the project would benefit the town economically and demographically, and that the project would serve the town’s planning needs. Healy said that the original AROD regulation adopted by the commission in 2016 was approved after “a great deal of discussion and due diligence” to address Wilton’s specific needs finding appropriate and diverse housing for a growing senior population and that there was “no reason to retreat from the finding” that this regulation–now with new modifications–was the answer.

Leonard Braman, another attorney representing 183 Ridgefield Rd. LLC, put it more succinctly:  “What’s best for the town as a whole is to stick to your guns and enact the AROD that this town needs.”

When the hearing was turned over to public comment, however, resident after resident after resident disagreed. They challenged the P&Z commissioners to heed what the community spoke out against in the several hearings that were held after the first regulation had been passed. Jim Jarvie, a Ridgefield Rd. resident, set the tone as the first person to speak against the proposal, and to urge the Commission to hold off on any AROD discussion until after the town has completed the upcoming Plan of Conservation and Development process–that only then would the commission truly know whether or not AROD met the needs of the town.

“The citizens of Wilton do not want an AROD on Ridgefield Road. That’s why we’re been coming to these zoning meetings month after month, quarter after quarter spanning two calendar years. If you’re still not certain about the sentiments, put it to a referendum, then you’ll find out,” he said, adding, “The new POCD process is upon us and we should tap into that current exercise–discover what information will culminate from this planning activity and see what the new data will show us. We should stay any significant changes to zoning such as AROD until that good work is done.”

He was followed by Karen Silverberg, who said that the proposed regulation was to suit the developer’s gain rather than protect the interests of the residents. Tom Curtin asked the commissioners to consider what was their role and what did the town want, and to remember that they said they’d heard the citizens who spoke out “50 to 1” against the regulation the first time. Another resident called the proposed project the “third example of bait and switch by a builder in Wilton,” where a project was proposed with a low number of units and then increased after P&Z approval. The proposed regulation was “built off of one developer’s misbegotten plan,” according to another member of the public, and several others spoke about their concerns of how denser housing developments on Ridgefield Rd. would destroy the character of a road with a scenic designation–despite the applicant’s team arguing that a scenic road designation applied only to the roadway and not the land on either side.

The arguments against continued–from Vicki Mavis, who has led the residents’ opposition and demonstrated that by handing over stacks of emails and letters in opposition to the project that had been submitted the first go-round, plus petitions against that numbered above 300. Mavis said more work needs to be done by the town to make sure the project was truly in the best interests of the town, and whether the new modifications suggested by Healy would actually limit AROD development on other more suitable Danbury Rd. and Westport Rd. parcels.

Patti Frisch, a resident whose legal action against the town found the fatal technical flaw that brought the first AROD regulation down, noted that market demand for such housing would eventually fade, leaving the town with housing that doesn’t suit a changing market. As a real estate attorney, she also addressed another potential legal flaw in the way the application called the regulation both an overlay district and a floating zone. The differences impacted the way anyone could appeal a future decision, making it ambiguous and potentially vulnerable to the threat of litigation and appeal.

That ambiguity had been pointed out earlier in the evening by town counsel Ira Bloom, who had noted that the two types of zoning were “two different animals,” each providing the commission with different amounts of discretion and legislative authority over what would happen with the parcel of land. “I think the commission and community in particular would benefit if you retain that legislative authority,” Bloom advised.

That advice echoed the recommendations made to the commission by town planner Bob Nerney in a memo sent on Sept. 20, spelling out the options that might be available to them, and which Nerney spelled out again at the hearing:

  • wait until the POCD process takes place, to determine what the town as a whole wants
  • explore regulatory criteria that the town already has in place within existing zoning districts, noting that the town has “an assortment of multi-family districts where AROD could be added and kept,” or it could be added to one-acre or two-acre residential zones. That would make the process a special permit one, which wouldn’t give the commission a lot of discretion, he explained, noting, “I don’t think you want to do that.”
  • specify it as a floating zone, which is more of a legislative, zone map change. It would give the commission much more discretion over and time to consider each application that might be made. This way, the commission would have more ability to study and deliberate how appropriate an application is for the town.

Nerney summed up by saying, “…the other option to wait until the POCD process plays out and you have a pulse of where the community stands, [and] a lot of statistical information is generated–I think would be helpful.”

Most of the other commenters, save two, fell into the camp of opposing the proposal. Of the two residents who spoke in support, Stephen Hudspeth cautioned against the risk that if the town didn’t accept the current proposal for a 16-unit development what might take its place would be a 100-unit affordable housing development, has had happened before with the Avalon apartments on Danbury Rd.; and Moses Alexander, who said he didn’t see how the developer’s proposed plan for the 183 Ridgefield Rd. parcel would change the character of the road or the town.

The discussion isn’t over, however–the hearing was kept open and will continue at the next P&Z meeting, on Oct. 23–which will again take place at the Clune Center auditorium.