A lot has been written about real estate developer, and longtime Wilton resident James Fieber, in conjunction with the property at 183 Ridgefield Rd.. However, Fieber himself hasn’t spoken out at length and no-holds-barred, about the property owned by 183 Ridgefield Rd. LLC, an affiliate of his company, The Fieber Group.
Fieber’s team contacted GOOD Morning Wilton following the news story we published in February about his proposal to build a 35-unit development there, and the possible implications for the town, given Wilton’s current economic outlook. Fieber’s representatives asked if we wanted to do a sit-down interview with him.
With a promise of no restrictions and nothing off-the-record, we jumped at the chance. The property has made headlines for the last two years, and as one of the last large, developable parcels of land in Wilton, it’s symbolic of several issues facing the town: What kind of community is Wilton? Are we a semi-rural village that prioritizes historical value above all else? Do we want to encourage or discourage change in zoning and development? What’s Wilton’s current demographic makeup and how are we meeting the various needs of all residents? How stark are the economic challenges we face and what are we willing–and not willing–to compromise?
In this context, we met with Fieber yesterday morning, March 6–along with Keith Russo, a Fieber Group project manager, and Fran DiMeglio, a communications consultant working with Fieber.
GOOD Morning Wilton: Take us through the project’s timeline, when this began for you. There have been assertions about your intentions from the start–if you ever planned to live there, and how the project went from one lot to five lots to now 35 units. When did this start, and how did it grow?
Jim Fieber: The woman who occupied the old home on the Schlichting property passed away and the property sat there in disrepair for more than two years with no offer on the property. A friend of mine represented the owners as their realtor–Kevin O’Brien. He called and said, “You’re a neighbor of the property, why don’t you buy it and control how it’s developed. You’ve been in Wilton a very long time and it’s one of the last larger pieces of property, so you can put your mark on it.” Kevin knows the work we do–we do upper end, quality building.
I said, “Kevin, I’m not really interested because we live in town. We developed Silvermine Woods and Lambert Common and other things in town. With Silvermine Woods and Lambert Common, there was controversy–not similar to what happened here, but the world’s a big place–I live here so I prefer to develop in other places.”
That was the end of the conversation. Some time went by. Kevin got in touch with me again and said, “They really want to sell the property, you probably could get a good buy on it, why don’t you make an offer.” I thought about it and made an offer on the property.
GMW: This was about when?
JF: Approximately two years ago.
My only discussions about acquiring that property were with Kevin O’Brien and my attorney, Leslie Aceto, who’s at a firm called Zeldes, Needle & Cooper, in Bridgeport.
So I never spoke to Dave Schlichting, the heir, ever, until about three weeks after the [Aug. 21, 2015] closing on the property. When Kevin [initially] spoke to me, he said, “Would you consider keeping the old house as part of your development plan.” I said, “That’s a deal breaker, Kevin. It’s located in the middle of the property. I’m not going to make an offer if that house has to stay. I respect the fact that the Schlichting family may want it to stay but then I’m not your buyer.” Kevin can verify all this.
[Later in the interview, Fieber further clarifies the timeline]: The negotiations were probably three months before [the close] so about two years ago.
The contract never mentions the house staying because they knew we wouldn’t agree to it. We executed the contract, closed on the property and what we had at the time was one old house on all the acreage that was there.
As a prudent developer, how do you protect your investment, and being conservative I always look at my downside. The next step was to look at what we could do with this property as a matter of right. It’s a 2-acre zone, and as a matter of right we’re entitled to subdivide the property; given the acreage it was comfortable getting five lots. So we subdivided the property and got four lots plus the lot the house was on.
We went through the subdivision process. As everybody knows, part of our plan was to demolish the house. We had engineers in the house; we had people walk through the house; we had politicians in town walk through the house to take a look at it for themselves. The house was in ruins–the roof had gaping holes in it; water damage was severe; it was a shame but the house was really in bad shape.
Also the house was not so old; it wasn’t a post-and-beam construction, the sort of construction where you could pick up the house and move it. You would basically have to disassemble it. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the structure of the house.
What was remarkable was that it had floorboards of the period. We originally thought about taking the floorboards out and selling them–I had an estimate of their value, and they were worth close to $30,000. I found out that when the town bought Ambler Farm, the family that sold it stripped the floorboards out of the old farm house so I got in touch with the director of Ambler Farm and she was elated that they could have period plank flooring to install at the Ambler house. She and a crew came up, I was there, we methodically took the floorboards out and they’ve moved them to Ambler Farm.
During this whole period there was a group led by Victoria Mavis, who’s a neighbor of the property. They lobbied at the Historical Commission to try to get a [90-day] moratorium, which was fine. During that period we worked with Rob Sanders, a well known [historical] architect in town, to number one, find somebody who wanted the old house; and number two, find somebody who wanted the barn, which actually was much more outstanding than the house itself. Through Rob we located a family that lives on Nod Hill Rd. and they meticulously had experts come and disassemble the barn, numbering all the pieces, under Rob’s supervision; and that barn is being reconstructed on Nod Hill Rd. Rather than sell the barn to the family that bought it, we asked that they make a donation to the Wilton Historical Society instead, and they made a sizable contribution.
We had the 90-day period and we agreed to a subsequent 90-day period past that so we could continue efforts because we weren’t in a rush to develop the property.
Because there was noise, or threat, basically, by Victoria Mavis, to try to get the house designated as a historic home, and because the economic consequences of that were real to us, because of her efforts, it basically expedited the demolition of the building.
Had she not made application, and allowed us to work with a couple of people who had some interest in disassembling the building, and had given us more time, perhaps that house could have been disassembled and moved–although I will submit to you that it was literally in no condition to be disassembled and moved–but we could have continued those efforts.
Nonetheless, we took all the redeeming architectural elements and stored them.
After the subdivision was perfected, and the property was in its current situation, as you see it now–we have an approved, 5-lot subdivision–Wilton passed last fall a new regulation which permits, in accordance with an overlay zone, age-restricted housing at a density of three per acre. That overlay zone specifically applies to properties that have specific characteristics, in terms of location, size and other attributes. The three roads deemed suitable to the town, according to the regulation, are Ridgefield Rd., Westport Rd. and Danbury Rd.
In promulgating that regulation, the town also stated that age-restricted housing is consistent with the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD). They also stated that in areas where there is no sewer, and the interests of that POCD can be furthered, the commission should consider extending sewers to those sites. That is something at the Planning & Zoning Commission referral hearing was left out of the discussion by the commissioners, and I think is a crucial point.
[Editor’s note: P&Z received a referral from the town’s Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA) to review a proposal brought to the WPCA by Fieber to extend sewer service up Ridgefield Rd. from Wilton Center to the property at 183 Ridgefield Rd., and determine if it fits the town’s POCD. That proposal was discussed at the Feb. 27 P&Z meeting, and is the discussion to which Fieber is referring.]
Our organization considered the merits of looking at a site plan on 183 Ridgefield Rd. that would use the new regulation to fulfill the stated need–to accommodate Wilton’s growing population age 55-and-older–which currently stands at 25-percent of the population.
That’s where we are now. We thought it was an ideal site. It lays out very well; sewer is not far away; we don’t believe it changes the character of the neighborhood; it’s extremely close to all the shopping and downtown attributes of Wilton Center; and we believe that it’s an excellent use for the property without, in any way, impinging on the enjoyment of surrounding homeowners.
The site has virtually no neighbors; there’s only one adjacent neighbor–which is highly unusual. That neighbor would be impacted. We have not had discussions with that neighbor yet because we have no plan in front of any land use board at the current time. We merely have a conceptual plan; we’re merely asking currently for the extension of sewer.
There’s also a misconception about who pays for the extension of sewer. In almost any town, when the developer is willing to pay for the extension of sewer, everybody jumps up and down, because from a health perspective it is a much better way to dispose of household waste. In this particular area, part of our proposal is to provide laterals for every home owner along the way, and junction boxes.
The people who live on the east side of the street, the Comstock Brook side, have aged septic systems, some of which would not conform to modern standards; one basically has failed and is being currently rebuilt. Plus the environmental hazard to Comstock Brook is significant from those aged septic systems–they’re virtually more than 30 years old, most of them. This would give those homeowners the chance to increase the value of their property and hookup to the sewer at basically no cost because we’re putting the sewer in.
On the west side you have the Children’s Day School, which has real need for a septic hookup, so they benefit. The only other user basically would be our property, with the intervening cemetery along the way.
It’s fair to expect that if we have sewer, we will make a proposal to have an active adult community with cluster homes on that property. But our first job is to get sewer approval for that site.
GMW: Also water?
JF: We would bring water to the site also. That’s something we don’t believe needs approval or town referral. It’s a public utility, you make an application to Aquarion, and Aquarion is always happy to have their water lines extended, especially if a developer wants to pay for that extension. So we anticipate the project to be served by water and sewer.
GMW: To clarify, when did you start talking with the town and town officials? August 2015 is when the closing happened, before the 2015 municipal election.
JF: My recollection was that the controversy surrounding the demolition was post-election. We owned the property some time before we applied for the demolition permit.
GMW: When was the first time you showed plans to anyone at Town Hall?
JF: We’ve never shown an actual plan for development; we’ve shown a conceptual layout because without getting the sewer commission’s approval for the extension we frankly don’t want to go through the cost and expense of everything that’s required for site plan approval in front of P&Z. [Conceptual plans where submitted with the sewer application.]
GMW: [Before bringing concept drawings to the WPCA] had you shared conceptual drawings with anyone in the neighborhood, or with Victoria Mavis or any other individuals who might have expressed concern about this project?
JF: No because it’s premature. The conceptual plan is just for the purpose of showing the sewer capacity this project would generate. The conceptual layout doesn’t reflect what the homes may look like or the actual layout may be. So it makes no sense to sit down with people and show them what we intend to do. People want to see elevations, the amenities, they want to see what the open space looks like. We’re not there.
GMW: In comparison to the assisted living project at Orem’s Ln. [on the former Young’s Nursery property], where there were several options that were explained to residents there, the difference in support those residents are giving to that project, versus what you’ve encountered–at some point would you sit down with neighbors, with the public to say, ‘Here’s what we’re talking about, here’s what could happen, here’s what our options are.’ In terms of building community support, what do you think about that?
JF: I’ve been in this business now for some 37-38 years. We’ve built thousands of residential units. We’ve never, ever done a project where we have not embraced an inclusionary process with neighbors and the community. The reason why we haven’t done that yet is we have nothing to show everybody at this point in time, it’s premature.
People probably have a hard time accepting that fact, but that’s the reality of the situation. Not unlike the property you’re referring to on Danbury Rd., there are other alternatives for the development of this property as well–everything from no development whatsoever, to the five homes that are approved, to the discussion we’re currently having regarding 35 age restricted homes, to affordable housing, to institutional use–either a school or a place of religious worship. There are many other possible uses for this property. What we’re investigating currently is a purely residential use that a lot of the neighbors are confusing with commercialism. It’s not commercial, it’s purely residential; in a self-contained community which would be substantially not visible from any passerby.
GMW: Talk about the visuals–what will the residences look like? The discussion about the Plan of Conservation and Development refers to ‘character’ and ‘use.’ It may not be drawn out on papers, but what do you envision it will look like if it is to fit into Wilton’s POCD?
JF: Our design people that work with me have very creative ideas. The concept has been loosely discussed, I’ve had discussions with Rob Sanders, loosely, about this project as well. We’re interested in doing something that’s contextual as well, architecturally. We recognize that this property is just north of a historic district in town. We would like these homes to feel like a New England village of sorts, yet incorporate everything in modern living that people in this particular demographic would expect.
GMW: What are you talking about in terms of pricing?
JF: I’ve drawn an analogy between River Oaks, which is a similar community that we built in Stamford. Some folks have been blogging that it’s not similar because it’s not age restricted. Yet the design was only suitable for people in this age cohort. So that at River Oaks, 98-percent of the residents are 58 and older. I think by definition you can say it’s a very similar community.
The marketplace dictates who’s going to move into certain units or homes because the design is or isn’t appropriate for family living. Given the fact that there’s a regulation that specifies that residents have to be 55 or older, you can be sure that we will design units that will appeal to people 55 and older, because we want to sell them.
That’s another rumor floating around, that this is going to be a 35-home apartment [building]. These are for-sale units, they’re not rentals.
In Stamford, we anticipated selling these units that are somewhat similar for $1-1.2 million, and our average sale price was over $1.5 million. I think in Wilton we can do better than we did in Stamford, so for computing what the fiscal benefits are to the town, we figured an average price of $1.2 million.
If you look at the units down the road in the Toll Brothers job [River Ridge], I think that our units will be architecturally superior, that they’ll blend with the land in a much more harmonious way. Those units are $1.2-1.3 million units. We think we can realize considerably more.
[Following the interview, Fieber provided the following formula his team used to compute estimated $830,000 annual tax revenues they believe the town could realize from the 183 Ridgefield Rd. development project:]
Appraised Value/Unit: $1,200,000
Total Appraised Value–35 Homes: $42,000,000.00
Assessment Ratio: 70-percent
Total Assessed Value (70-percent): $29,400,000.00
Mill Rate: 27.34
Annual Real Estate Tax Revenue: $803,737.20
Personal Property Tax: $26,791.24
GMW: Is Rob Sanders the architect on this project?
JF: We haven’t named the project architect because we don’t have the essential utilities approved for the site yet.
GMW: But he’s someone you’ve talked to?
JF: Yes, we’ve talked to Rob now for more than a year about this project.
GMW: How much does it cost to bring up the sewer lines?
JF: We only have a rough idea at this point. We have estimates but until it’s determined, I’d rather not give you our estimated cost. It confounds the bidding process. It’s a significant cost.
GMW: If this is approved, once it’s approved, assuming what the concept is, with the 35 units, how long does it take to go from breaking ground to completion?
JF: That’s a difficult questions, because market forces dictate how quickly. At River Oaks, a job that was twice the size with a much more difficult piece of property to work with, and we had to build a large bridge that spanned the Ripowam River, that took more time, but it was two years. We anticipate probably about that time from the start of construction [for 183 Ridgefield Rd.].
GMW: And is there any idea of how long the approval process could take?
JF: The approval process is largely dictated by the pace at which we want to go. We need to get all our documents in order to submit. I anticipate getting a positive [sewer] referral from P&Z because the plan is consistent with the POCD. And the sewer commission will make its decision. If we get a positive decision from the sewer commission then we’re going to work diligently and as quickly as we can to move it forward.
The town literally, having lived here for 34 years, it’s my belief that it’s in the worst fiscal condition it’s ever been in since I’ve lived here. The cost of living in Wilton, our taxes–which some people have been comparing Wilton to living in Darien, New Canaan and Greenwich–our mill rate is essentially more than twice that of Greenwich and about twice that of Darien and New Canaan. Something has to give here.
Plus the fact that you’re talking about a state that’s in fiscal crisis. Gov. Malloy has decided one way to help is to make the wealthier towns pick up a larger share of the burden. Wilton has been named one of those towns. It’s anticipated that we’re going to have to forego about a million dollars in state aid to our schools, and it’s also being talked about that we may have to throw about $4 million toward our teachers’ pension plan. When you start talking in that magnitude of $5 million more needed in revenue, and when our grand list has been absolutely stagnant for the last two years, and we just lost off our grand list the second taxing district from Norwalk’s properties in Wilton, I call that a crisis. Where is the money going to come from?
Prudent towns, like Darien and New Canaan, have progress regulations which they’ve passed in the last year or so, which permit much more denser development and permit overlay zones like the one Wilton’s recently passed. Except both those towns have new construction already underway for people 55 and older.
Why is the focus on 55 and older? Because a quarter of our population is 55 and older. We’re going to lose them if we don’t provide housing that’s suitable for them.
The top two reasons residents give for leaving Wilton? Because they want to downsize–and they don’t want to just downsize into a smaller home; they want a home that’s suitable for people 55 and older. They want no-maintenance homes, to live in communities with people who are similar in age. They want extra space in the house so children can come and visit. They want to have master bedrooms on the first floor, or an elevator in the house to get to a master bedroom–or provisions for an elevator so if they need one one day.
People 55 and older do not want to lose connection with the town that they’ve lived in for a long time. Yet we’re finding that many people in that age cohort are leaving Wilton and settling in Westport, Darien, New Canaan, or elsewhere.
Our fiscal crisis in town will intensify if people are leaving and not staying here. Those people are also the people who serve on town boards, they serve the charities in town, they mentor younger people, they have more disposable income, they frequent the stores downtown, they eat in the restaurants downtown. The more those people leave, the more those other towns will be enriched by their wealth.
When I moved to Wilton 34 years ago, it was a very different place than it is now. When my oldest children graduated high school, there were well under 200 people in their class. When my youngest graduated, the class size was twice that. When we moved in the town’s population was half of what it is. Long before I moved in, this was farm land–there weren’t a lot of trees and there were farmers here.
Then people moved into Wilton, because it was more affordable than Greenwich or New Canaan or Darien, and it got settled by suburbanites. The farmers were forced out and it became a suburban town. That’s where we are today.
There’s been an evolution in Wilton, and if you don’t want to think forward, and you want to be surrounded by people who think backwards–we had no liquor in town, we were the last town not to have it; we had other rules that were a bit arcane. We have a first selectman now who is stepping it up, who is a very progressive thinker and recognizes the fiscal problems the town has.
I realize people are afraid of change, but the fact of the matter is, if you don’t want to be progressive, if you want to have the highest mill rate amongst your sister towns, which will discourage people from buying your home one day, which will cost you money… if you don’t want to think progressively, and think of Wilton as ‘static,’ then we’ll fail as a town. If you want to think progressively and how can we make this place better, this is one of the ways we can make the town better.
GMW: There’s a suggestion that you ‘played’ the town.
JF: There’s also been a suggestion that there’s something wrong with making money. Real estate development is my business, that’s how I make money. I’ve been successful over a long period of time. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with responsibly making money, or with responsible development.
I have not ‘played’ the town in any way. I have only made use of the regulations that were available at the time. So we have developed value for the property–first as a conventional subdivision, and then this other regulation came along–which is reflective of progressive thought. We believe that property is far too valuable; it is one of the few sites available in town for age-restricted housing.
The regulation says age-restricted housing on Westport Rd.–where? What are those neighbors going to say? They’ll say the same thing as the neighbors to this property, which is the closest piece of property to Wilton Center that’s available for housing.
So what was P&Z Commission thinking of when they passed this regulation? Clearly, when they said Ridgefield Rd. this is the only property on Ridgefield Rd., really, that is suitable for this use. Where else?
Danbury Rd. is pretty commercial. I think people 55 and older deserve to live in residential areas. And on Westport Rd. there are few sites that are suitable. That’s the universe of where this can happen.
GMW: Comparing it to the situation that happened at 33 Westport Rd., where there was a proposal for multiple units on just one acre, that was a much denser project because it was different, with an affordable housing component. You’re not looking at affordable housing for 183 Ridgefield Rd., but you spoke earlier about potential other “possible use” for the property, including ones that might bring in denser development.
JF: That’s a complex question. We stated publicly at the sewer commission that we would restrict development to age-restricted housing, pursuant to the regulation that’s in place. The concern you’re expressing is that if sewer is extended to our parcel, is there the possibility, probability, likelihood, of a denser development pursuant to the state’s affordable housing regulations.
If the sewer extension was granted, nothing stops me from selling the property to somebody else who might have a different development plan. There are a lot of things that ‘could’ happen. We’re willing, if we’re granted the sewer extension, to restrict that property–deed restrict that property–to be developed in accordance with the existing regulation that permits age-restricted housing. Because we believe that that’s the best use, all things considered, for that property.
You talked about how some people say I’ve “played” the town, and I’ve already said that’s absolutely not the case. However, there is a moratorium on affordable housing currently. I am a very patient person. We’re developing currently 14-15 projects underway. I am a neighbor of this property. I do not want to see affordable housing developed on this property. But come the end of the moratorium, with or without sewer, that property can be developed pursuant to the state’s affordable housing laws, and it would be very, very difficult to foreclose that possibility.
I am willing to foreclose the possibility, right now. Because I want to put age-restricted housing on it. I want to build 35 units; I want to do it in a contextual way; I want to responsibly develop it. Those homes will largely be more expensive than many of the homes in that neighborhood, and it will be a model community–an award-winning community, I assure you–and it will not be visible from the road. Given the elevation of Rte. 33, how the property rises up, even now looking up into the field, you can barely see what’s up there.
That’s our intent. The intent is not going to change, unless economic necessity on our part dictates a different plan.
New Canaan has satisfied– 10% of their housing stock is affordable housing; Darien has satisfied their housing stock. People refer to them as our sister towns. We have 3.0%. Personally, I think there’s nothing wrong with having 10% of the housing stock as affordable housing. People have a total misconception about what it means, and it happens to be good to have some diversity in town. That’s my personal opinion. I would say a lot of people disagree with that.
We have no intent currently to build affordable housing on that property.
GMW: Is there anything else you want to say, that you feel hasn’t been covered, or that you want to clarify? Anything else?
JF: One crucial point–at the P&Z meeting, the commissioners are not used to getting these sort of referrals, because Wilton never did them before. They’re required by state statute, but it was never brought to the attention of people in the town government that these referrals are required, which is something corporation counsel would bring to the attention that it’s required. We have new counsel, he’s very good.
So this is a case of first impression, to some extent, for the people on P&Z. I’m not sure they’re understand what the burden is to give a positive or negative referral. They’re not deciding the issue, and they’re certainly not approving an application, because there’s none before them.
At that meeting, vice chairman Scott Lawrence, I commend him because he did a lot of homework. He methodically went through various pages of the POCD. However he missed some pages that I think are dispositive of the issue. What he said to the other members of the commission is that this property is in a ‘sewer avoidance area.’ In Wilton, you’re either ‘served by sewer,’ you’re in a ‘sewer avoidance area,’ or you’re in a ‘septic management area.’ He didn’t talk about septic management areas; he said, ‘sewer avoidance areas’ or ‘areas served by sewer.’ If you listen to Scott’s analogy, the sewer could never be extended, because it’s either where sewer is now–because the rest of the town is sewer avoidance or septic management areas. Our property is in a septic management area. It says specifically in the POCD, “A septic management area is defined as areas where the intent is to continue using private septic systems. But in cases where the extension of the sewer system would support the POCD, the extension should be considered.”
He never talked about that, he left that out, and I think that was misleading. It’s a shame that all the commissioners don’t have the time to go through things as thoroughly as Scott did, and I commend him for that. But it’s very important that the commission understand what the responsibilities are on a referral and then for each of them individually to take a look at the POCD, because they’re relying on a single person’s (in my opinion) misinterpretation of a crucial issue.
[Editor’s note: During this point in the interview, Fieber’s associate Keith Russo clarified an earlier point about when the demolition permit was issued, and walkthroughs that town officials took inside the original house before it was demolished.]
We even talked about moving the house to the Historical Society, to their land or Lambert Corner. They didn’t want it, for two reasons: the cost, and also the house was a mess. You cannot move the house intact, you’d have to take it apart. When you’d put it back together, you could have used the floor joists, but the studs are no different than new studs, there was nothing interesting about them. We’d have to rebuild using new studs so there was no benefit.
Mrs. Schlichting lived in that house in a room off the kitchen, she couldn’t do stairs. The only bathroom in the house, one bathroom, was on the second floor. There were holes in the roof, and large mammals occupying the second floor. It was a disaster area. From the outside, from Rt. 33, a couple hundred feet away, when you looked at the house it looked like an Andrew Wyeth painting. From a distance this house looked good, but everything was rotted.
All Dave Schlichting wanted, and you can ask him, was the money. He was entitled to the money, that was his inheritance. It’s too bad the town didn’t buy the property and make a park and playing fields, like New Canaan did with the Irwin Street property. They took that and put a rubber membrane jogging trail around it, it’s open space and jogging.
We’re not the pristine little New England village that Wilton was at one point in time. It’s important for people to realize that. People should look at what’s good for Wilton as a whole, not what a group of people are saying, who either live near this property, or who fashion the town on the way it was some long period ago. It’s time for the town to step up here, and grow responsibly, and to take care of the people who live here now–not to force out people who are older.
Excellent interview with Mr. Ferber. In this age of vitriolic opinion based reporting, it is delightful to see and read an article based on quality journalistic principle—reporting all sides of issues on a factual basis. Personally, I support Mr. Fibers intent @ 183 Ridgefield Road. It is all about “residency and retention” in Wilton now. Change are necessary and proper. A well done interview and. Reporting. Don Sauvigne
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