Hurry Up and Wait: Decision on Ridgefield Rd. AROD Delayed, Again

Wilton’s Planning & Zoning Commission held its second public hearing last night on the issue of Age-Restricted Overlay Development zoning (AROD) on Ridgefield Rd., and once again, the hearing went on for several hours. The majority of residents who came to speak expressed their opposition to high-density development on Ridgefield Rd., some with very emotional and passionate opinions. And while the commission had been expected to vote last night on the application brought by resident Vicki Mavis to amend current AROD regulations and remove Ridgefield Rd. from potential AROD locations, the hearing was actually left open once again and continued until the next scheduled meeting, on June 12.

It was continued at the request of Mavis’ attorney, Christopher Russo, who told commissioners he wanted more time to review new expert testimony that had been only just submitted late on Monday afternoon. According to a town official, the material had been submitted by Casey Healy, the Gregory & Adams attorney for 183 Ridgefield Rd., LLC, and included a traffic study and other information in support of a planned development at that Ridgefield Rd. parcel.

The continuance frustrated a couple members of the public who were concerned that any delay of a decision might jeopardize Ridgefield Rd. further. As town counsel Ira Bloom explained at the start of the meeting, any new applications that come in and are accepted for consideration by the P&Z commission are considered according to the regulations in effect at the time the applications are accepted. As of right now, the current regulation in effect would allow an AROD on Ridgefield Rd.. There’s already one application for an AROD zone change for the 183 Ridgefield Rd. parcel that will get considered, regardless of whether P&Z decides to remove Ridgefield Rd. from the regulation. Now, with another delay until June 12, that leaves open the possibility that other AROD applications might be submitted too and accepted too, before the issue is resolved.

Bloom reviewed other important legal points surrounding the AROD decision, and said he wanted to do so to avoid confusion.

  • Legally, the commissioners have the most discretion and latitude to make changes when legislative decisions are before them. They have less discretion when considering specific site plans or special permit applications. He advised the commissioners to consider the town’s scheme of zoning–the zoning map and how zoning is discussed in the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD).
  • Also on June 12, commissioners will hear the application from 183 Ridgefield Rd. LLC to change the zoning on the 13.5-acre parcel from two acre to age restricted under AROD. Bloom explained that, “…it is a pending application pursuant to the existing regulation that passed last November. Because that application was submitted, accepted and is pending, it would be governed by the floating zone that you passed, regardless of what you do with tonight’s application, that’s the law. We should understand that.”
  • If that application to rezone is passed, the applicant STILL has to come back one more time for a special permit site plan review, and that would involve another completely new application, with specifics on a particular plan for the site. However, Bloom warned, the P&Z commissioners would have much less discretion for interpreting the regulations or adding certain restrictions once things were at that stage.
  • Mavis’ application also asks P&Z to put a moratorium on any multi-unit developments on Ridgefield Rd. under AROD. Legally, says Bloom, “The law says you can impose a halt, a limit on applications for a reasonable time and a reasonable purpose. There’s some discretion on time, you can’t impose a moratorium for an exorbitant time, but you can impose one in order to study the issue further. That’s what it suggests, a time out for a limited period of time, to do reasonable analysis. You’d have to decide for how long.” Again he cautioned that any moratorium set now would NOT impact the application that has already been filed by 183 Ridgefield Rd. LLC. “They are in the queue so to speak. But it would impact anyone else who would consider applying.”
  • Bloom looked at the public notice published in the Wilton Bulletin for the Nov. 2016 meeting and public hearing when the AROD regulation–and which roads to include–was considered by the commission. He believes that the legal notice for the Nov. public hearing would be held legally adequate in court. “It meets the minimum standards,” he said, noting that hindsight is always 20/20. “I do understand the concerns a number of people raised, who wish that the three roads were in that notice by name, but there’s a lot of detail in this amendment.” He also noted that he reviewed the minutes and agendas for all of 2016, and found that the topic of age restricted housing was included on several agendas and on July 25, 2016, “…the minutes reveal that Mr. Nerney in discussing the draft amendment, specifically cited the three roads including Ridgefield Rd.”

***

During public comment, speakers were again held to three minutes. The vast majority of speakers opposed using AROD zoning on Ridgefield Rd.–only a few spoke in support of allowing Ridgefield Rd. to stay in the AROD regulation. Notably, some professionals associated with the zone-change application that 183 Ridgefield Rd. LLC has submitted were among those who spoke up in support of keeping Ridgefield Rd. in–however, as pointed out by several people against Ridgefield Rd. and AROD zoning, most of those professionals (landscape architect, traffic study expert, etc.) are not Wilton residents.

We’ve summarized some notable speakers and comments.

It’s also worth pointing out that the members of the commission, especially the chairman, seemed to be making a concerted effort to be less cursory and reactive than they were at the May 8 meeting. There were isolated incidents where the crowd chanted or patience ran thin, but for the most part, this hearing was much calmer than in years past.

Several speakers pointed to the historic quality of Ridgefield Rd., while others talked about safety concerns that any additional traffic from new development would add to what they said was already a traffic-heavy, accident-heavy road.

Steven Wander:  One month ago, on May 9, a 92 year old Wilton man was making a left turn onto Ridgefield Rd. when he hit another car, sending occupants to the hospital. This is your AROD resident. This is a view of the future on a twisty hilly portion with poor visibility high volume and high speed traffic. Only one pedestrian has died on the streets of Wilton. 15 year old Melissa Nickel, and that was on Ridgefield Rd. Should this happen in the future with children and bus pickups this tragedy will be on the people who approved it.

Karen Silverberg:  Resident of Piper’s hill for over 17 years, lived in area 50 years. I remember Ridgefield before Keeler’s Ridge, the fact that 2-acre was honored, kept things in character and scale and appreciate the fact that our own Bob Russell how much he fought to make sure we understood the value and what a great scenic economic asset is is to ALL of us. Not just those who live on Ridgefield Rd. I would rather see places outside of RR than RR, it is a part of us, it goes to the heart of our historic character.

The other thing, something my parents taught me, and old saying:  When you’re in the environment running from a wolf, you surely will run into a bear. We’re constantly running from things–high taxes that have been imposed on us. I agree, I’m almost 55, the children need to be educated. But certain things we need to tighten our belt for. The other is this threat of affordable housing. We’re constantly running from it. Whether it’s true that this board and our own state senator that supported the ARoD when it was written, none of us know about it. I don’t know if she’s running from that or running to something else. I’m going to assume that’s I’ve heard form Lynne Vanderslice and I’ve listened and to Mr. Fiteni, this is WAY too important a piece of road that we need to support and solve the affordable housing and and wait before we destroy our town.

Christina Duncan:  I was president of New Canaan Historical Society, and I watched antique houses be pulled down. New Canaan made it’s plan to change its downtown in 1980. Wilton didn’t have that plan, it’s a different town, I moved here, we have a special thing, those open spaces, a huge number of antique properties. That house is gone, there’s no bringing it back But this AROD would permit taking down those houses, and once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. You can’t get that back. I watched my son getting on a school bus on Ridgefield Rd. almost die as somebody turned after being in that traffic. He was feet from being smashed. This is not a safe road. You should not put more people on it. [applause].

Toni Boucher:  Since 1987, I’ve served on the Board of Education, the Board of Selectmen, as Wilton’s State Rep. and now its State Senator. I was involved with Bob Russell to help establish scenic road designation for Ridgefield Rd., and you’ve seen me help preserve the town, help neighbors to redirect a redevelopment to a more appropriate location. When I was asked to support age-restricted housing at no time did I weigh in to support a particular project, there are those who would use my name to further a development. I have a lot of experience driving that road, and experience other senior projects in other towns. Other s mentioned traffic lights People should not use my name in support of something I don’t support.

Patty Temple:  The only zone that could apply is the AROD floating zone. I do support the AROD. I think these kind of developments can and should be done carefully, thoughtfully and can be done beautifully to blend in with surroundings. Using the most recent proposal, with a meadow along the road, it is an example of a win-win for the town.

Tom Curtin:  I am a SID:  senior in denial. I approve an amendment to remove Ridgefield Rd. from AROD. Hard to believe AROD is in high demand in CT. high earners and retirees are leaving the state. Age restricted housing had hit a wall.

Mike Sherman: I live at 182 Ridgefield Rd. I moved here when I was 12 in 1970, and have been here ever since. Some observations:  I’ve noticed that all of the people that live in Wilton seemed to be opposed to this project. The two or three who have spoken in favor are not residents. Most mornings it can take 5-10 minutes to leave my driveway. It’s dangerous leaving my driveway. Cars come around 30-40mph. This about 30-60 additional cars coming out of a complex. Question–whose interest are you acting in? If the town people are speaking out against this project and the people out of town are for it, who are exactly are we working for, the taxpayers of Wilton, or the people working for the developer living out of town?\

Tom Gunther:  found a house built  POCD:  challenge is to maintain past attributes that drew us here. I want to stay where I am. I would not be doing it on RR, where I can walk to town, train entertainment, restaurant. Putting affordable housing  on RR for any reason is ridiculous.

Marcy Sternheim:  I was very disturbed by the public notice, it lacked transparency, and it would affect the integrity of the commissions decision. I’m struck tonight that the town attorney is here. I appreciate his analysis of the notice, that the commission met the minimum. That’s not a robust endorsement for due process for notification. You met the minimum. You met the letter of the law. You have not, according to what you’re hearing from the entire community, met the spirt of the law or of our neighborhood. The decision to have passed the AROD is now under reconsideration look to your conscience you’e heard from people who would have spoken in advance of this decision to help you make well founded decision. You have the opportunity to do the right thing. I want to encourage you loo to your neighbors, your town, and reconsider the decision.

Stephen Hudspeth: I’m going to remind us of the Avalon experience, important to understand. Back then, a developer came forward with very modest proposal. That was rejected by P&Z. In frustration they sold to Avalon with 120 unit, scaled to 100 unit and litigated, town lost. That experience says that, the option to develop ANY parcel in town as affordable housing exists. If you don’t take steps where there are ways that kind of development to prevent it, you’re going to force it by forestalling the alternatives. Is very dangerous. Where there is excess sewer capacity, a developer can compel an extension. Extending it to 183 is very very doable. How do you encourage the type of development that is minimally invasive in area that everyone agrees, one of the best options is the AROD.  Do you want to consider all that you’ve heard from people. Why don’t we cut the AROD off at Middlebrook? If you force developers in the direction of 8-30g, that’s a dangerous course to take. It’s not a good way to go. We need to be creative, taking affirmative action. Impressed by development that 35 units became 16. wouldn’t surprise me if that’s not the bottom line. People have to negotiate, talk, look at the buffer zones, in the… Will tell you if we don’t engage in proactive thinking about how to avoid turning affordable housing up and down, that can happen that’s a great danger. I strongly urge you to keep the AROD up to Middlebrook, then call it a day.

Florence Johnson:  43 year resident, age-wise would qualify… traffic…there are potentially lots of people going in and out for a 55-year-and up.  Massachusetts did a study–are you familiar? Greatly admire development in Norwalk and Ridgefield. creates vital downtown. Commercial first floor, residences above, vibrant retail, revitalizing Norwalk. In an area that had been abandoned and underperforming tax wise. I don’t see where AROD was on the 10 year plan of development for Wilton. I don’t see where smart growth overlay district has been considered in a meeting like this, mixed retail/residential… I’m not sure you’ve consulted with experts on providing housing for elderly populations. I would like to see that we have a conversation in this town about the plan for the town to attain some of the goals we have and needs. Urge you to consider moratorium until we have a new POCD that considers some issues I’ve addressed and examines the study in Massachusetts.

Alice Snyder:  Commend you on AROD. Great job. Needs of people in Wilton are changing. People living longer. If this is tastefully done, it could be a prototype for the town to embrace. People will love it. It’s only 16 units…

Michael Sherman:  you haven’t done a traffic study. How could you consider a zone change without a traffic study?  We need to fix the town infrastructure to get people to stay, not build units and hope people will come.

Ira Bloom:  would be my recommendation that you do that. we all believe in smart development versus opening up pandora’s box, working on behalf of the citizens with experts to assess whether this is smart development.

Iris Farmer:  Observation:  the people who are speaking in favor of this are the people who stand to profit–real estate agents, landscapers, lawyers. The people speaking against it are the citizens of wilton.

Ed Rowley:  The impact on residents property values. We live in a public, prospective residents reading this. 300 houses for sale, all the news and discussion is hurting the property values on RR. Economic pain, can be devastating. Will have the impact of supercharging AROD, pushing properties into developers hands.

Rt. 7, two big trends–what’s happening to commercial property. There’s a drop in demand for suburban commercial property. Retail apocalypse. Stores closing, retailers closing, people spending on experiences, not products. This two will hollow out suburban centers, like Wilton. At same time, increase for walkable properties. More people living downtown, more using restaurants, stores, attracts more people–it’s a virtual circle. Other towns are recognizing. AROD is encouraging development to go OUTSIDE of town centers.

John Macken:  I’m in favor of senior housing, but not sold on it being on Ridgefield Rd.. Concerned why , with the outpouring on this issue, why RR would remain part of the plans? What I would ask of you, is that you don’t allow what happened what people suggested, this turning into a slippery slope. that if you make a final decision that you’re extremely confident of that not happening.

Simon Wardle:  What this all comes down to–history. specifically respecting the history of Ridgefield Rd., preserving the history and protecting the history of RR. The history predates the establishment of Wilton, predates the birth of the country, predates the name of Wilton appearing on a map. RR has over 300 years of history. It was the connection between Ridgefield and Norwalk settlements long before Wilton existed. Predates Wilton by over 100 years. 300 years of irreplaceable history. Not nice views, what is represented by the red dots on the map– historic, irreplaceable buildings. weight of irreplaceable history makes RR truly unique. Unless we respect and protect, we can’t guarantee we will preserve the history. Bob Russell chose one road to designate as scenic, because of all those red dots. You’ll be turning each red dot into a red bullseye for developers. The road is so full of history and irreplaceable old houses, it should not be on a list of three roads eligible for high density housing. It should be the last road on any such list.

Sarah Curtis:  I have a concern:  the legal notice, we did meet the minimum standards for the court.  I’ve lived in Wilton my whole life. I’ve never thought of as a town whose loftiest goals is to meet the minimum standards of the court. I don’t think that’s a standard our first selectman wants to hold herself to. I don’t think minimum standards would be acceptable with regard to educational system? Do we want to pay teachers the minimum we can get away with? Do we set a standard that we want to meet the minimum for that football field and track? Bonding for tennis courts, nowhere in that was the lofty goal of the minimum we could do for the tennis courts or the condition of our roads.

That’s the bottom of the bucket. I’m not calling out anyone on this commission. Let’s see about the minimum standards. Because you have done that, that’s why we’re here tonight, and two weeks ago, why almost to the last person, everyone has stood up and said, “What were you thinking?” Meeting the minimum standards has never been part of the goals and objectives of this town. What has been done is very short sighted. When you blow it, you own up to it, you fix it and you do it quickly. I think we al understand we blew it, own up to it, let’s fix it and do the right thing, and people will work with you.

David Anspach:  I feel personally duped. A lot of people do. What I’m surprised is you all don’t. There’s no coincidence about this application, the timing, and they’re already included in an application. The people don’t want it on Ridgefield Rd.. That’s a representation of our town. No one is making an argument you would think of putting that on RR. Arbitrarily? That’s not how it happened. I feel duped. This is not motivated by higher purpose thinking. Not a person stood up and said, we need it. No 55 and older said I want to live there. This is an adventure of profit. People speaking in favor don’t live in this town. Why anyone has to debate this over and over. We don’t want it. Your representation is supposed to be for the benefit of us. It’s just disgusting.

Christopher Law:  The people have spoken. It’s a bad plan. They don’t want the development on RR. Put it on Danbury or the other part of 33. It doesn’t belong on our beautiful rd. You made a mistake. Donate it to the town. Put it on the lawn of the town hall. it belongs there more than on our side of our town. You hear me Joe? Did you read my letter? I want to know if you read the letters. You heard us, you guys made a mistake.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.