Jim Fieber Q&A: ‘I want to be more collaborative on 183 Ridgefield Rd.’

Tuesday afternoon, following the previous evening’s highly charged Planning & Zoning public hearing on AROD zoning on Ridgefield Rd.GOOD Morning Wilton sat down for a Q&A interview with James Fieber, who owns the 13.5 acre property at 183 Ridgefield Rd.. Technically the property wasn’t the subject of the public hearing, but his intent to develop higher-density housing on the parcel and his recent application for a zone change through his company, 183 Ridgefield Rd. LLC, was at the heart of the matter.

Fieber was accompanied by Fran DiMeglio, a communication consultant working with him, who on occasion took part in the conversation.

[Editor’s note:  we are hoping to sit down with Vicki Mavis, whose application for an amendment to remove Ridgefield Rd. from consideration as an AROD zone, was the main subject of the public hearing. If we are able to we’ll bring you that Q&A too.]

GOOD Morning Wilton:  I noticed at the start of the meeting last night you walked right over to Vicki Mavis. Multiple times I saw you talking with her.

James Fieber:  The evolution of my thinking about the entire matter is that at work we work under a collaborative approach. My vote, even though I own the company, is no better or powerful than anybody else in the organization. That’s how we get to a collective decision that is better than what would be any one person’s by themselves.

Over the last 3-4 months, as this matter has come into public view, a lot of the people who were in the room are friends of mine, some are acquaintances, some are people I don’t know but I recognize from the Village Market or around town–you know it’s a small town. And people in Wilton don’t hesitate to speak out. People have stopped me and said, as innocuous as, “Hey, what are you going to do with your property?” to “This is what you should do with your property,” to “This is what I’d like to see you do,” and anything in between.

We’ve never made a formal application except to the sewer commission. When you go to the sewer commission, you need to show need for a sewer. So we had a draft, 35-unit plan presumably under the AROD to develop the property. I honestly believe that was a good and responsible development plan for that piece of property and that it met the needs of the town in many, many ways. That includes fiscally, but more so and more important to me, it provided a community in which people who are empty nesters could stay in this town, and work or volunteer or do whatever they want to do and keep connection with Wilton without moving to our sister towns, who have an ample amount of that housing.

So as I spoke to people around town it became very clear to me. Last night was not really eye-opening to me because I’ve heard all the arguments that were made last night before. The thing that is most important to people, and almost all those people live on Ridgefield, the most important thing is the character of the road.

I thought to myself, What if we could preserve the character of the road by preserving a sustainable meadow along the roadway? Basically it would look exactly the same as it’s looked for the last 150 years. Also keeping in mind I have a substantial investment in the property that I want to recoup my investment, I want to make a few dollars because real estate development is my business. I don’t think there’s a person who was at the meeting who begrudges that fact; it’s not an issue, nor should it be.

So I went up to Vicki and I said, “Hello, good luck this evening.” She didn’t really want to talk to me. I said, “Let’s shake hands, we’re really neighbors. This shouldn’t be like Trump and Merkle where you don’t shake my hand.” And then she smiled and she shook my hand and that led to a little bit of dialogue.

We have been trying to get in touch with her, for a significant amount of time, since she filed this application. I reached out to her, she wouldn’t take my call. Fran reached out as a neutral party, she wouldn’t take Fran’s call. [Editor’s note:  Fieber mentions other individuals in Wilton who he says reached out to Mavis unsuccessfully, but as we can’t corroborate that, we are omitting their names and Fieber’s account on this point.]

That’s over the last six weeks, we reached out many times. That’s because I believe we live in a community and that if reasonable people can sit down and talk, nine times out of 10, we shouldn’t have had the meeting we had last night at all. That’s the reality, because the commission executed their legislative function, they passed a responsible bit of legislation; the regulation was proper in how it was noticed and there were no structural flaws in it at all. It met the town’s needs, it met the town’s goals; it’s forward looking and in their planning function they’re supposed to be forward looking. It did everything that is right for Wilton.

It set up a procedure, and Bob Nerney–who set it up as an overlay zone–was really bright in his approach because each site then gets scrutinized in a site-plan approval process, which is really rigorous. Attorney [Christopher] Russo [who represents Mavis] tried to belittle that fact and made it seem, “Can’t an applicant do X, Y and Z?” The answer is, “Applicant can propose X, Y and Z, but the commission has a great deal of discretion in approving something under this particular special permit scenario.

If you capsulize everything that was said last night, that is actually what led to the evolution of our plan. Because what was really important to people was, “Okay, this site is very close to town, it’s one of the few sites where you can do something like this. I’d be okay with it, but I’m not okay with the sewer coming up, because if the sewer comes up there and assuming we trust Jim Fieber, and that you’re not going to build something other than you say you’re going to build, we’re okay with that. But how about all the other people along the way? What if they start developing their property? What if what happens down on Westport Rd., on a one-acre piece of property, happens to somebody up here who has their one- or two acre piece of property, and they go, ‘Oh, I got sewer now!’ and they sell it to a developer who is not me and that developer decides to take an aggressive approach to his property.”

That was a hard thing for me to swallow, because I honestly believe, and the town’s Public Works department believes, that using a sewer (especially if the town doesn’t have to pay for the sewer) for waste disposal is far preferable to septic. Plus the fact that you have a bunch of people on the East side of the road–one has a failed septic system, they’re all more than 20 years old and they’re on the Comstock Brook. No one needs their effluence seeping into the Comstock Brook, so if you put them on sewer, that problem goes away. Plus the Children’s Day School could really use the sewer.

I thought it was great; if I could do 35 units, and pay more than seven-figures to bring a sewer up, that everybody ends up a winner. But the fear of development pervades the rationality of the benefits of the sewer. I get what people are worried about over that four-tenths of a mile. Whether it’s real or speculative, I can’t say.

So we decided, okay we’re not going to do the sewer, and we’re going to put all their fears away. We’re going to propose a plan that’s 19 units fewer than the 35 that were in our conceptual plan. Moreover, we’re going to address the fact that we can create a sustainable meadow, which will look exactly like the meadow that’s there. I sat in this room and spoke to [Wilton Land Conservation Trust president] Peter Gaboriault about it, and said we can set it up where we can serve what people appreciate most about the property, and talk about potentially the Land Trust being the steward of a good piece of the property. [Editor’s note: Fieber says Gaboriault expressed his preference of the 16-unit plan over the original 5-home plan as well as of the streetscape. GMW could not corroborate that, or Fieber’s account of his discussion with Gaboriault by press time.]

Because with five homes, there’s no control over the property whatsoever; there’s no open space, there’s no conservation. I understand they’re the steward of the Keeler Meadow up Rte. 33 and the vision would be to do something like that visually. He said, “It’s a great plan, but I prefer that the whole site be conservation because I’m the president of the Land Trust.”

I get that. He said, “Can we talk about that?” I said, “We can continue to dialogue about the property, I’m not doing something today or tomorrow.” And that’s how I left it with him.

So being collaborative and being community minded on a project like this can really either please everybody or everybody walks away a little bit unhappy and you strike a deal.

Do I want to build 16 units versus 35? From a dollar and cents perspective, of course I’d rather build 35 units. Do I think that the 16 units is a great plan, together with the conservation it offers? The answer is yes.

In addition to that we actually cut out a two-acre lot so that the people living to the North, (who I have yet to meet because we don’t have a concrete plan yet to show them), so that those people who expected perhaps not to have anything other than a single family house next to them, can have a single family house next to them, and they’ll know what they’ll have next to them. That’s why I held that lot out. There are a lot of alternatives for that two-acre lot but the only two I’ll consider are a single family home or open space.

GMW:  Would the conservation meadow be put into the deed in perpetuity?

Fieber:   It would be put in the deed in perpetuity. There’s no intent to make this temporary in any way. There’s a possibility–although it’s only a possibility at this point in time–that the steward for that meadow might be the Land Trust.

In addition to that it will have only one curb cut. My homes, as proposed, would be approximately 300 ft. from the center line of the road–whereas I think the setback  might be 40 ft. It would be 300 ft. back, because I’m eliminating 19 houses. In addition to that, they would not really be visible from the road. So you’d have this beautiful meadow, we’d enhance it with landscaping.

I think it’s win-win for everybody. The town gets the fiscal benefits of 16 age-restricted homes; the neighbors and the folks that travel Rte. 33 get the same meadow they’ve always seen; the stone wall probably gets repaired; and I get a job where I can recoup my capital and hopefully make a small piece of change. Everybody either walks away happy, or I’m unhappy I don’t get 35, the neighbors are unhappy that it’s not the way it’s always been, and the town doesn’t get the revenue from 35 units, they get 16 instead. Everybody gets a piece of the pie that way.

That’s why we were trying to contact Vicki because she didn’t know anything about this idea.

GMW:  Is there any way, with the current land use regulations, that if Ridgefield Rd. were to be removed from the AROD regulation, for there to be another way for you to get approval on your 16-unit proposal? That essentially both sides could get their way?

Fieber:  It begs the question, why? Why would you remove Ridgefield Rd.? The market is going to determine very quickly where age-restricted housing works. Last night you heard the young lady with the British accent, her perspective is you can’t sell those units there. The closest [age-restricted development] we’ve built to a town center has been probably about two miles away.

The conceptual picture of the old person with a walker living in these homes is anything but the truth. Even the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development breaks demographics down to more discrete intervals:  there’s 55-65 and there’s 65-and-over. People who are likely to buy these homes are 55-75, based on my experience. These are vital, active members of the community; they hold jobs, they travel. They drive quite well, and the necessity of having a sidewalk to town is a misnomer.  We’ve had so many people inquire about buying units already, that you’d be surprised at the level of interest. Because we don’t have the diversification in town of our housing stock, so this is something like what the Toll Brothers job, will sell very quickly.

GMW:  Given residents’ concern about a slippery slope, that one Ridgefield Rd. development under AROD would just encourage others to bring high-density development plans to Ridgefield Rd., is there any way for Ridgefield Rd. to come out of the AROD regulation but you still are able to develop this 16-unit plan? 

Fran DiMeglio:  Planning and Zoning could take Ridgefield Rd. out after this development, right? They could let this development go and then take Ridgefield Rd. out.

GMW:  Your application for an AROD zone change came in before the hearing…

Fieber:  That’s right, we pre-date the hearing.

These are questions that are policy decision making questions. If you read the minutes from the numerous hearings that the P&Z Commission had, or were there and listened, where it was more detailed, it was very, very clear to me that P&Z executed their legislative function as planners, and were very forward looking and considered all aspects of what they acted upon, and the specifically named Ridgefield Rd.–it’s in the minutes there.

The problem is, at a public hearing people can get up and say whatever it is they want but it was extremely well thought out, and I have seldom seen our town’s Commission as animated as they were last night in clearly defining their function and standing behind their action.

The reason that the regulation was passed is a good one, is–because I don’t know whose idea it was, I suspect it was Bob Nerney‘s idea–is to set it up as an overlay zone, so that the special permit process basically governs each individual application.

Either the chair or the vice chair said, on the density question, it may be the Commission’s perspective that you can have up to three per acre, maybe on some properties 1.5 or two per acre would be more appropriate. When you have a special permit, it’s not cast in stone what the outcome’s going to be because the regulations provide…setbacks for example. If the setback in the AROD is 40 ft. and I’m proposing an application that has hundreds of feet, voluntarily, I am restricting myself. Other developers may do the same thing for other reasons. So they have the complete ability to review each application.

I think attorney Russo, who is relatively new at land use law, and I think he spoke well last night, but he misspoke about certain items, one of which is the amount of discretion that P&Z Commissions have in the special permit process.

GMW:  Were you taken aback by the strength of the emotion in the room last night?

Fieber:  I’ve been to hundreds of these meetings. I’ve been to meetings in New York City where things have been thrown. I’ve been to meetings where people have been very passionate before. What I don’t like is when people attack others in a manner that’s not fair and rational. Attacking personalities and integrity, unless clearly and absolutely justifiable, is just not the way people should comport themselves–at home, at work, at public hearings.

I was not surprised by some of the things I heard last night. But personally when two people said money had exchanged hands, and as another person put it, the “elephant in the room” was 183 Ridgefield Rd. when it was clearly understood as part of the ground rules of the hearing, that it would not come up at all. That the applicant knew that, yet every other slide was a picture of my property. I didn’t mind that so much as people putting my integrity into play, as if I would try to unduly influence anybody in this process.

It’s anything but that. As my attorney told me, he would never advice a client to negotiate with himself. But that’s basically what I did–I took 35 units and I didn’t cut 2 or 3 or 4 or 5; I took out 19 units. It’s because of wanting to conserve the meadow.

The plan that’s being proposed now gives everybody something that they can be happy about and walk away happy. It’s a much, much better plan than building five houses there. If you build five houses, you could wind up with five more big new homes with people putting all the amenities in their back yards, and then having fences along Ridgefield Rd. and you’ll feel like you’re basically driving through a tunnel. And nobody will see into that property at all; there won’t be one vista.

Why not get behind a proposal like this? I’ve certainly made the concessions and, I don’t know what the viewpoint of the applicant is because we didn’t talk about it. We did talk afterwards, and I asked her if she would like together and sit down, and learn more about what our proposal looks like. She was noncommittal.

Her attorney summed up the attitude:  It’s an all or none thing. Very seldom in life are things all or none. The things that are all or none are intangible–like integrity should be all or none, or your faith can be all or none. But real estate development–that’s not all or none.

GMW:  Some of the all or none solutions I’ve heard rumored are, simultaneous to Mavis’ amendment application, there’s still an effort to raise enough money to offer to purchase the parcel from you; that the Land Trust is interested in purchasing it. Is that true?

Fieber:  This is my personal opinion, not my developer’s hat. There are two good uses for this property:  one is open space; the other would be the 16-unit proposal that I made. There are many other uses for the property, but I think those are the two best uses. I’d like to see one of those two things happen.

The town had the opportunity to buy this property and they passed on it. Before I bought the property, I inquired with the town to see if they had any interest because it had been sitting for a long period of time on the market; it was repeated that there was no interest. More recently I approached the town again and asked if they have any interest; they have interest but they have no money.

DiMeglio:  The Preserve Wilton people can buy it.

GMW:  That’s what I’ve heard discussed. As an observer of town events, I have a hard time seeing everyone in Town, residents right now coming to the decision for the Town to spend money and time trying to purchase the land.

Fieber:   Here’s the thing about Wilton right now. I have expertise in land development; I’m a lawyer, I’ve been to graduate business school, I’ve been doing this for a long time. Wilton has significant structural problems right now, especially versus some of our sister towns. Lynne is particularly well-equipped to deal with some of these issues because she has a background in finance, and that’s what you need to be leading the charge right now.

There are two ways to look at this property being open space:  Look at New Canaan. It has Waveny Park, a phenomenal park and great resource for their town. It attracts people to come to New Canaan to be a resident. The Irwin Property, which is about half-a-mile from town. It’s a beautiful property. Our organization wanted to buy it and develop it. The town ended up pre-empting any private developer by making a deal with the family to buy it and they turned it into Irwin Park. It’s very similar–it’s an open meadow with a house on it, some outbuildings, and orchard in front. They already had Waveny Park, and yet the town spent a lot of money to get the Irwin Property. They turned it into a different sort of amenity than Waveny.

This town has significant open space, but it’s very poorly utilized, because the open space is not particularly hospitable for people who want to go to a park. It’s not a beautiful open meadow, it’s wet and wetlands all over it. This property [at 183 Ridgefield Rd.], which is close to town, and very accessible to everybody, could be just like Irwin Park. It would be a wonderful resource for the town. And even though it would cost money for the town to buy it, that money comes back to the town because it’s an amenity that’s attractive to people and would bring them to Wilton.

Yes, Wilton can clearly afford to finance the purchase of this property. And the town could work together with the Land Trust to get–like everything else is paid for, like the football field turf is paid for, whenever there’s a rally cry it seems private resources respond in Wilton. So maybe the Land Trust together with the town could come up with a way to pool resources–respecting the fact that their missions would be different, potentially. So if there was a will, there could be a way to do it.

I’ve had discussions with the town regarding this and I remain open minded about it.

In the meantime, I think the draft new [AROD] proposal is an extremely responsible way of approaching development on the property.

GMW:  I overheard you react last night at the meeting, when the discussion turned to 8-30 G [affordable housing regulation] and you reacted to someone intimating that you had threatened using 8-30 G.

Fieber:  Yes.

GMW:  In our last conversation, you did talk about the many alternatives that existed for developing the project.

Fieber:  That’s exactly right–I gave you the continuum of potential uses for that property. The continuum was from open space to affordable housing. That’s correct.

I live in town, and I told you just now that I think the two best uses for the property are what we’ve proposed and open space. I’m speaking as a resident of Wilton and I stand by that. So affordable housing is not one of the two uses that I feel as a resident of this town is one of the two best uses for the property.

I also do not feel that affordable housing ever should be used as a threat. I know that’s happened in other towns in this area. Towns should have, as part of the mix of housing, affordable housing. It’s good planning to do that. It’s been shown that, towns that have diversified housing types are the most viable and successful. That the homes sell at the lower end and the upper end and in between with much more velocity when you have a diverse housing stock. Because people not only come into towns, people also change from various types. That makes for a dynamic, vibrant real estate market.

Our surrounding towns have moved recently to really develop all that sort of house–New Canaan and Darien have been super in doing so. We’ve been kind of behind, slower to move, more cautious about it. Almost everybody who was in the room last night has the attitude that–this is my perception–that change is not good. Or they prefer to have re-enactments of Revolutionary War scenes on Ridgefield Rd.. I find those re-enactments entertaining, and I also believe in studying history.

But also I believe in progress. Change and progress are intertwined. We need to have reasonable change and that’s what the Commission did–they passed a regulation that is very reasonable and forward-looking.

GMW:  There were fewer voices that agreed and expressed that, but there were some. Look at Commissioner Doris Knapp, who expressed that and was succinct and clear. When you heard her say that, she was speaking to exactly what you just expressed.

Fieber:  I thought she made an articulate and brilliant point. I don’t go to as many of these P&Z meetings, but she doesn’t usually speak as much. When she said that, I think she was heard.

GMW:  You’ve said you’ve heard from people who’ve expressed interest in buying a home there, even before they see anything on paper. Are you hearing from people who necessarily didn’t speak up last night, but who support you?

Fieber:  I have these two emails [hands over copies of two emails in support of keeping Ridgefield Rd. in the AROD regulation] that were sent to me. The interesting thing is that in the town’s POCD, 81% of the people favor this sort of development. Psychologically, if you are anti something, you are much more apt to get involved and speak up than if you’re a proponent.

I respect that Ridgefield Rd. is filled with beautiful antique homes–it’s not so easily living in those old homes. They don’t have all the modern conveniences. A certain type of person buys a home like that.

Wilton has always had a tradition of having an active Historical Society. Route 7 never got built because of Wilton, and people were proud of that. People were proud that we didn’t have liquor in town forever. This town has been slow to change, and now we’re at a real crucial point in how we’re going to move forward. We’re either going to have to start allowing change rapidly or fall further behind.

DiMeglio:  It was a hostile environment last night. There were people in the room who would have stood up [to support Ridgefield Rd. in the AROD regulation] but who were afraid to because of that environment.

Fieber:  I have no hesitation whatsoever in speaking at a public hearing where I have a pecuniary interest. I remember standing up in Norwalk at hearings where every other word I got out people started screaming. It’s very difficult to speak under those circumstances. That’s why people who are pro aren’t going to come to an oppositional hearing because who needs that headache. It’s uncomfortable.

With so few people who came out, and with people screaming about the taxes, it’s the same people.

GMW:  Your lawyer, Casey Healy, isn’t here to speak about it but I want to ask about what’s been said, about how the AROD regulation got written. I’m not saying that anything improper happened, but I have to ask about it because people have asserted it.

Fieber:  Casey was approached by at least three different building companies–one extremely large one, we were one, and I don’t know who the third is. He has represented to me and to others that there were at least three, maybe there were more, I don’t know. They had an interest in doing age-restricted housing in town.

My interest arose only because I was interested in the campaign for first selectman this year, I read what Lynne was saying. Lynne campaigned on doing this sort of housing. I thought, it’s a great idea, Wilton could really use that sort of diverse housing stock. So when I bought this property, I immediately thought about the possibilities. Then weeks after I bought it, Toll Brothers called me and met with me interested in doing the same thing I’m interested in doing, on the property I bought.

In all towns in which I’ve worked, it’s no different than how things are done in Washington, because the people who are most interested in progressive, forward-thinking legislation about land use are the people who develop land.

But I can tell you that we had no direct input into the legislation in the way it was drafted. Keith Russo from my office who has a planning background, did send ideas on one occasion to Bob [Nerney], which were only regulations from another town. I think Keith edited them to some extent. But it was sent as a suggestion, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

It would be irresponsible for the town planner, who was directed by the first selectman to look into this viable form of housing–of which don’t have any–which is fiscally beneficial to the town it would be irresponsible for a planning director to not reach out to all sorts of different people who are involved with land use planning–other towns’ planning, developers. It doesn’t do any good to have a regulation if no developer would be interested in developing pursuant to the regulation.

There were innuendos flying around about that which are totally unfounded. Not only did he put it to bed, but Lynne’s statement showed her complete faith in Bob’s integrity about how the process was approached. I can guarantee that from what I know about Lynne that she would not have done that unless she was absolutely certain that she was correct in her judgement.

DiMeglio:  If you search other towns’ planning offices you’ll find that a lot of the language that comes in, it is a work in progress with the parties involved. It’s not just the planners sitting down and writing their own.

GMW:  What happened last night and many events during this process, and the public’s feelings about it, may have grown from an unfamiliarity with ‘the way things work.’ From the start of last night, with some commissioners upset at how the presentation was delivered behind them, and there were some people for whom it was the first experience seeing that kind of [regulatory] discussion, a lot of the agitation has grown out of the first time people have seen the process and their unfamiliarity with it.

Fieber:  The unusual thing about last night was the statements from the audience would be the sort of statements you’d expect to hear in a special permit application for a site plan approval. It was not about the applicant’s request. It was about 183 Ridgefield Rd.. That was not the proper format for it.

If an application is submitted at some point, those would be the issues I’d expect to be raised, and I guarantee you that we will address all the concerns that were heard in a responsible manner if we make an application.

GMW:  In two weeks, the commission will meet again. Will Casey speak?

Fieber:  I don’t know.

GMW:  Do you plan on speaking?

Fieber:  I had anticipated that [last night’s] meeting the hearing being closed last night. I didn’t the applicant would make a three-hour presentation, so I thought we would get through it last night. I was surprised it was continued. Normally I do speak in a manner such as this. But on May 22, unless they change the date, I have to be somewhere else.

GMW:  Anything else you’d like to reflect on?

DiMeglio:  I thought the attorney’s presentation about the scenic road designation…

Fieber:  That’s a very good point. We took the time to speak to the CT-DOT and the person who runs scenic designation. And no designation has ever been removed. In addition to that, the designation really protects the state largely, because it allows the state not to bring a state highway up to modern standards.

There are state roads that have been designated that have had–subsequent to designation–shopping centers, office buildings, and other commercial development on it; there’s never been a revocation of scenic designation. We asked them about this specific road and if we built 35 units on this piece of property. He said as succinctly and as clearly as he could, that the state’s interest is only the state right-of-way. What happens with land use beyond it is a municipal matter, and it would not affect the designation of the state road.

The whole issue that took more than an hour and was a large focus is a non-started. The state is not interested in how the properties beyond the right of way are developed. That is a local land-use matter.

DiMeglio:  I think a lot of things that were said last night were unsubstantiated. To create fear–this could happen, that could happen.

Fieber:  He said affordable housing could happen. It’s just easy to get up there and try to make people more concerned and fearful than they are.

The Freedom of Information Act is available to all of us, and it should be used sparingly because it puts a tremendous burden on town resources, including the people at high levels who have a lot of work to do during the day. And it forces the town sometimes to hire extra help, which costs money.

After the Freedom of Information request was made [by Mavis for communication between Nerney, Vanderslice and P&Z chair Joe Fiteni] and all the emails, text messages and any communications that had to do with 183 Ridgefield Rd., there’s nothing there. That answers your other question, by the way. There’s nothing that happened other than normal process and procedure.

 

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