GOOD Morning Wilton‘s interns have gotten off to a great start, diving right in to come up with story ideas, set up interviews and write stories. Because this high school-sponsored program should be just as educational for them as it is helpful for GMW, we figured having them sit down with Wilton’s top town official would be like diving into the deep end and learning to swim all in one day. Not only did they hold their own last Friday, May 20 at our roundtable interview with First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice, but she had such a great time answering their questions, she asked them stay beyond our initial time to keep the interview going.
GMW: Let’s start off with Economic Development. You’ve talked about looking into zoning and regulation changes and working with the Planning & Zoning Commission (P&Z) to encourage developers. What kind of zoning changes are you thinking about?
Lynne Vanderslice: Something I thought was to put in more 55-and-older housing communities in town. That is something that P&Z is looking at right now. Everyone thinks I’m being paid by Toll Brothers [laughs]. But if you look at River Ridge [built by Toll Brothers], that’s not a 55-and-older development but it sort of self-selected that way. Most of the residents are 55-and-older. So that brings, like I’ve said, $400,000 in tax revenue to the town. And other than one unit, where someone just signed up for kindergarten, there are no incremental kids in the school. Each student costs 19000 a year, so if you can sell 19 town houses to people who are never going to have kids in the school, they don’t require a lot in services and they pay a lot in taxes, it allows for us to keep the taxes down and still pay 19000 a year a student.
GMW: Has P&Z ever discussed that kind of 55-and-over development? Or is it currently restricted? What kind of regulation do they have to amend or create to make it easier for that kind of development?
LV: We don’t have a regulation—if you already have it, it makes [development] easier. So, first of all, with any planned community like that, you’re going to have to go in and deal with the zoning regulations. If you already have [the regulation], it facilitates for the developers to come in, buy the parcel and file it under that.
I think it is a win-win in the town. The state has an aging population, so there’s the demand, we’ve seen it. I’ve talked to developers—I’ve had three or more people who’ve come in here, who are either a property owner, or a developer, that wants to do it. This just facilitates it, to get it done.
I have a lot of people coming in the door with ideas, they now need to translate into action. This came about because three people, through their attorneys, said, ‘We are interested in doing this, so [P&Z is] going to write their own regulations, rather than have each person come through with individual [regulation proposals] unique to [one] situation.
GMW: Is there a specific area in town you’re eyeing?
LV: Well, you’re going to have to have access to the sewers. The sewers on Rte. 7 stop at Olmstead Hill Rd..
GMW: Can you say what other kind of ideas have come into you?
LV: No, not really. [laughs]
HH: Are there any pie in the sky dreams, that you think would be great for Wilton?
LV: You keep hearing and reading that the millennial generation does not want the house on two acres in the suburbs. They want to live where there are more amenities, where they can walk, and all that. I asked my 24-year-old son, ‘Would you ever live in Wilton?’ He said, ‘Absolutely no way, I’m going to live in the city.’ But I think there are still people that want to live in Wilton.
You have to have a mixture of housing. I think there could be things done downtown. With whats happened with retail, with online shopping, there just isn’t the volume to support the retail. It’s very limited what you could put in retail, so you need to create more demand. You need to create more diverse housing.
It’s something I would never say when I moved here 28 years ago. I came here because I liked the kind of community that it was, but as people are coming now, they want to have more. I want to give a quote that Rob Sanders gave [at the recent Wilton Historical Society panel discussion about what Wilton will look like by 2025]. Rob Sanders has been in the community a long time, he’s been involved with the Historical society, and I though that what he said captured perfectly where a lot of people’s thinking has changed. It was something to the effect that, “You are going to need this change in order to preserve some of the historical aspects of the town.” You’re going to have to give on this. And I think he’s exactly right.
GMW: That’s interesting—some change actually is a benefit to the goal of keeping the town charming. That there are ways to integrate the change to support what you’re trying to protect in the first place.
LV: That was his point. Another thing he said that was interesting, talking about the Cannondale area—he mentioned using that as an area to preserve historical houses. Right now, that’s two acre zoning, so if you change the zoning there, that’s kind of what they did with Lambert Corner, that was all historical homes. We have mostly historical homes now, in the Cannondale area. I thought that was a great idea. Ideas can be brought to Planning & Zoning by a citizen or the town can come forward with an initiative
GMW: In the past, Planning & Zoning has had a reputation of being resistant to that kind of change. Do you find that, like Rob Sanders and like you, whose opinions have changed on what the town is, do you find that P&Z might be more amendable to that kind of approach of ‘change?’
LV: This is a good test, this zoning and change. You’ve had a lot of turnover on P&Z. With the turnover, and what I know of some of the people that ran, I think you’ll see that. I think that the whole town is more open to it. I think that anything that is responsible—
GMW: …and realistic…
LV: …and realistic. You want to be able to preserve this town, and you want it to be able to be healthy. And you need it to change in order to be healthy.
GMW: One other regulation and zoning change that I know has been discussed pertains to the area at the border of Norwalk and Wilton in the I-Park area, about a hotel.
LV: Yes, that’s just come up, they are asking for two things: 1) to allow a hotel, and 2) to allow four stories. If you look at those buildings that are down there now, in that area, I think all of the property owners have done a really nice job. ASML has just been doing work, that building looks a lot more attractive than it did before. The Marcus properties [Wilton Corporate Park], on the other side of the street, they’ve done a beautiful job.
So anything there that is two stories now, if they wanted to add two more stories, I think it would look fine. I think that is another good zoning change. You know, ASML is putting in the new parking lot, they’re bringing in new employees and Marcus Partners wanted more parking, which they were able to get—or at least they got the zoning changed to allow it, I don’t know where that stands—just because there are more employees coming in. We kind of had outdated ratios, based on what it used to be, for employees per square foot; but now it’s much more. I think that’s all good for South Wilton. I’d love to see something happen down across the street from TJ Maxx.
GMW: When you say developers are coming in, without saying specifics, are people coming to you looking all over Wilton for areas to consider?
LV: With most developers, they feel like if the first selectman is going to object to the project, they’re already starting with one hand behind their back. So they come in and discuss the idea. One developer came in and said I want to do some work in your town, and do you have any ideas about available land, that kind of thing. [Town planner] Bob Nerney is usually in the room—I always invite Bob—so we’ve had a lot of really good conversations, and I’m expecting some things to happen.
GMW: It must be encouraging to have someone come in and say, “I want to develop in your town, do you have any ideas?” Even just, “We’re eyeing Wilton.”
LV: Definitely. Exactly. People who have done some recent projects here have good things to say.
GMW: Is something new coming into the Commonfund building?
LV: There are people interested in the Commonfund, turning into residential apartment buildings, medical, mixed use of medical and apartment, so a lot of different things there.
GMW: It’s great that people are thinking of it in a different way.
LV: And you have a lot of potential there, and it being right next to the train station, and with the apartments going up you could have a little retail in there.
Margaret Collias: You’re coming up to six months of being first selectman—what do you think your greatest accomplishment has been?
LV: Interesting, this is difficult for me because I’m usually the person who just gets the work done, but people have come up and said to me that there has been a tone change. That we’re moving in a positive direction, that some of the changes we’ve made are moving [Wilton] in the right direction. I’m really happy that we took the town meeting [voter turnout] percent from 11-percent to 18-percent (even though 18-percent is disappointing) that’s a big change and I think some of the things we did, like with the telephone calls, signage, helped to make that happen.
Drew Gumins: What are your thoughts on all the historical properties that have been knocked down, like 183 Ridgefield Rd., or the house on Hurlbutt St.?
LV: First of all, I believe in fundamental property rights, so if you buy the property, you have the right. Secondly, if you want to save property in this town, you have to be able to buy it. So I’ve encouraged people who are interested in preservation to start a foundation now—I said this back in October—so that when a property comes on the market, you can do something.
The one on Hurlbutt, somebody took it apart, and they saved it, so it can be reused. The one at 183 Ridgefield, probably everyone can argue over how easy it was going to be to restore, and how much money. Even the person who wanted to move it to the wetlands, that would have required some zoning changes, and he was going to spend well over $3 million rebuilding it. They did save the flooring, that went to Ambler [Farm], and all of the architecturally significant aspects of it are saved. They did repurpose the barn.
That’s why I think Rob Sanders’ idea was a good one, because with the Schlicting House [183 Ridgefield Rd.], the historical society said they couldn’t take it, there was nobody who could take the house, so if you did create the area where you changed the zoning where you can have more than one house on two acres, then there might be a future home for places like that. But the challenge is is that often those houses are not in great condition.
Emily Ettie: So the first selectman is in charge of so many things, how do you keep them straight, and what is the most difficult part of your job?
LV: First of all, I work a lot of hours. I’m not saying that’s the difficult thing but that’s how you keep everything straight.
I was so fortunate, we really do have strong department heads. I knew a little bit, I was on the Board of Finance for so long, I didn’t know them as well, and I didn’t know how good they were. So that’s a nice thing: the first selectman might change but we’ve had a lot of consistency. [Public Works director] Tom Thurkettle has been here for more than 35 years.
I’ve always been somebody who’s had to multitask, so that part of the job isn’t hard at all. I think the hardest part for me, has been trying to balance work and personal life. I have so much things that I want to get done and I have to work more hours than I thought, and that is a great sacrifice to my personal life. My husband is kind of a work-a-holic so it’s kind of easy to do it, but the things that I like to do, I’m not doing in my personal life because I’ve been working. But I’m not complaining because i’m thoroughly enjoying it. The hardest thing is more managing myself than the job.
Margaret Collias: When it comes to [your predecessor], Bill Brennan’s legacy, are there any areas where you feel like you are changing a little bit and taking a different direction, versus what do you think is the most important thing that you’ve maintained of his legacy?
LV: Well its interesting, what do you think his legacy is? I think Bill and I are in office during very different times. When Bill came in there were things in the works, Paul Hannah before him made at least one effort to upgrade facilities, it went to vote whether to upgrade this whole area, and it was defeated. So Bill came in and inherited all those same infrastructures that needed work, so that was a big part of his focus. It will be mine also because I still have a police station that was built in 1974 for 27 officers and we have 45, so I have to deal with the police station and this building, which has no insulation. If you came in here in winter there are heaters all over the place. So there are some infrastructure issues that will continue.
Bill had to manage during the economic crisis, when there was a lot of uncertainty. I’m coming in and we already know the fallout has happened. He had to deal in uncertainty, I know my job is to deal with the tax rate as well as possible, there is less uncertainty. And I don’t think that the community was as interested in alternative housing then as they are now.
Drew Gumins: We talked about bringing businesses into Wilton, if it were up to you, what type of businesses would you like to see?
LV: I think restaurants. Because I just don’t think that retail is, especially with this new mall that’s going to go in in South Norwalk, it’s going to have Bloomingdales’s and Nordstrom. I was at Bianco Rosso last night, it was pretty busy. I’ve been there on a Wednesday night, it’s pretty busy, so I think there’s an opportunity for more restaurants in town.
And I’d like to see residences in town, you know, it might mean changing up some of the buildings that are here now. The building next to the American Legion is for sale, there’s another one either one or two doors down that’s for sale, so those are opportunities where somebody can come in and they can put something that has retail on the bottom and residential on the top. I’d encourage that, the town planner has encouraged that, so I think if you bring more people in town, it will help support the restaurants.
I touched a little bit on Schenck’s Island. Are you familiar with Schenck’s Island?
DG, EE, MC: A little bit, yeah…
LV: Some of the best trout fishing in the state is there, and Trout Unlimited stocks it. During Paul Hannah’s administration there had been a plan to make a park there, and that got turned down. So an agreement was made with the Wilton Land Trust that they would develop a meadow there and maintain it, and that agreement ends at the end of this year. So I expect it will still have a meadow there, but we’re interested in making other uses for it. So I think the Norwalk River Valley Trail is going to come through Schenck’s, and then it’s going to go along the river behind those buildings that I mentioned.
Some of those changes makes downtown a more attractive place to live. So if we could get some of those, some more restaurants, and just more outside. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve noticed a huge change in the number of people outside walking. That’s a great thing. People walking causes other people to walk. It’s not retail that’s the answer to making downtown vibrant, I think it’s probably more activity, more people living there, and more restaurants. Especially as you get older, you don’t have any kids at home, you go out to eat a lot more, I find.
I think the river has been such a hidden asset downtown, and I don’t know if you’ve seen where we’re clearing out that area right now. We’re going to replant trees, but we had a lot of invasive things that have just ended up down there that don’t belong down there and if they don’t belong down there, they harm the plants that are native, the trees that are native, but they also harm the river. So that’s what this project originally started as. So it’s cleared now, we’ll be planting more trees than we took down, there will be some seeding. You may have also noticed that we cut out some windows there—as you drive down River Rd., now you can see into Schenck’s Island. We cleared the area around the footbridge, which a lot of people didn’t even know existed. That’s a long term plan we’ll continue to do. Someone called me up, I am so excited, I just drove by and I saw two people in the river fly fishing. They were there, nobody knew it. So I think opening up the river and all that it offers I think just helps downtown and brings people.
HH: I want to do a story on Trout Unlimited because I saw them, it was clean up day, and I went into Merwin they had a whole bunch of volunteers, and they were replanting along the riverbank. They explained about why they needed to do that, and they were stringing off to protect the new plantings and everything. They do a tremendous amount of work here, and are you into that?
Emily Ettie: What would you change about Wilton if it was easily done—laws and regulations aside—to make it better, more enjoyable, safer for the community?
LV: There was once a plan to change the traffic flow downtown, right across from the Veterans Memorial, that little diamond, put a rotary in. I think that’s a good idea. There was a plan to do the one way traffic, I think that would be a good idea. I know I’m focusing on downtown, I’ll get to other areas. I’d love to see some more outdoor dining. I love outdoor dining. I think that would be a positive thing.
Also, to extend Old Highway, across the tracks to link up with the road that leads to Schenck’s, the “bridge to nowhere,” across from Stop & Shop. To open Rte. 7 right there to downtown. But the state will never allow that crossing at the railroad.
Drew Gumins: What law do you think is ridiculous?
LV: I think [the law about leaving children] under 12-years-olds in a car alone is ridiculous. If you’re 11-years-old and your mother or father leaves you in the car and runs into the Village Market, that’s arrestable.
I raised my son here, he used to ride his bike long before he was eleven years old and twelve years old downtown. He and his friend would go get pizza and go to the movies, ride home, but I couldn’t leave him in the car. I can’t remember why that law went into place, probably something happened, I haven’t talked to Chief Crosby about it, but I thought, when I was eleven years old, I babysat four boys, one who was an infant. They were young. I was responsible at eleven. There are some responsible 11-year-olds, and there are others who aren’t.
You don’t want to leave a 2-year-old alone, but it disappointed me. I think that the kids in town are a lot more responsible, then people are giving them credit for. I think that we should empower our kids rather than overprotect them. That’s kind of my personal philosophy. And I think that is a little over protective. I think we should be setting higher expectations for them.
GMW: What’s the best perk of being first selectman?
LV: The best part about this job is you have to always be thinking. Using your mind all the time. That’s the real perk of it. And I like to problem solve. You’re always trying to do that. At the end of the day, this government belongs to the people that live in this town. It’s always frustrating when it’s me, myself trying to do something, or somebody comes in about something they’d like to do. It’s our government, why don’t the rules make sense? So I like to kind of problem solve and bridge that, what’s the practical solution here. Those are the two things I get to do things I do like. Think and problem solve.
LV: Does that answer all your questions? No more? All right, well this was fun.
EE, MC, DG: Thank you!