Vicki Mavis Q&A: I Hope People Come to Tonight’s AROD Hearing, Have Their Voices Heard

At tonight’s meeting of Wilton’s Planning & Zoning Commission, the first item on the agenda is a public hearing about removing Ridgefield Rd. from the town’s recently adopted Age-Restricted Overlay District (AROD) zoning regulation, continued from the commission’s last meeting on May 8. The application to amend the AROD regs to remove Ridgefield Rd. and place a moratorium on any Ridgefield Rd. AROD applications was submitted by Vicki Mavis, a Ridgefield Rd. resident and advocate of protecting historic structures in town.

The May 8 meeting was standing-room-only, even after being moved from Town Hall to the Wilton Library’s Brubeck Room. Anticipating an even larger crowd for tonight’s (Monday, May 22) meeting, P&Z has moved it to the Wilton High School Clune Center auditorium (395 Danbury Rd.),  at 7:15 p.m.

GOOD Morning Wilton previously brought readers two Q&As with Jim Fieber, a real estate developer whose 183 Ridgefield Rd. LLC has applied for a zone change from R-2A (residential two-acre) to AROD. Mavis has opposed many of the moves made by Fieber and his company ever since Fieber purchased the Schlichting Homestead at 183 Ridgefield Rd. and later demolished it.

Since publishing the two interviews with Fieber about his plans for the property, we were interested in having Mavis represent the “other” side of the story from her perspective, representing the efforts to restrict higher-density development on Ridgefield Rd.. Last week we sent her a set of questions about the issue, in advance of tonight’s hearing, and what follows are the answers she provided.

It’s important to note that in both interviews with Fieber, as well as in our Q&A with Mavis, all answers are unedited for length or content. Answers appear in full to GMW questions for all.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  You’ve been pretty much non-stop in your efforts to block development on Ridgefield Rd., for more than a year now. Did you think back when it started, with the demolition of the Schlichting House, that this cause was going to require so much effort and time?

Vicki Mavis:  No, and if I did know how much time and effort it was going to take, I might not have signed on in the first place! I wasn’t even aware of AROD until February.

My effort to preserve the Schlichting house wrapped up in March of last year, and as unfortunate as the demolition was I, like so many others, moved on. I have a family, a business, and serve as a volunteer in town in many capacities. So life is full and busy like most of us here in town.

But when it was reported in February about a possible sewer extension to the Fieber Group’s property on Ridgefield Rd. so it could host as many as 35 houses, I was stunned. I couldn’t imagine such a monumental shift in the use and character of a neighborhood could happen without input from those of us who live on Ridgefield Rd., because I believed that our town government is more transparent than that.

So I wondered what had just happened to allow such a radical and unprecedented change, because Ridgefield Rd. has been a two-acre residential zone for decades–and its state scenic road designation obtained back in 1997 by former first selectman and town historian Bob Russell was as strong an action as could be taken to try to protect the roadway from the type of high-density housing that the AROD regulation allows and encourages.

In time, I learned that many other homeowners felt similarly blindsided and shared my concerns about AROD’s impact on Ridgefield Rd., and the serious health, safety, traffic, heritage, and environmental issues it presents. All of us were united in our sense that the way the town went about noticing the one public hearing on the regulation was extremely quiet, without any outreach to those most affected.

Remember that when our Town’s Planning & Zoning Commission passed AROD in November 2016, the attention of Wiltonians was naturally focused on the enormously important presidential election. After I first learned of the AROD regulation, I began to research the issue.

I am a genealogist, so my work requires that I immerse myself in research and analysis of documents as a way to validate ancestral connections. I investigated AROD’s history by reading the P&Z Commission meeting minutes, listening to audio, examining town documents, and looking up the original meeting notices.

No homeowners received letters or direct communication from the town. The newspaper ads and agenda listing did not include any description of the locations to which AROD would apply. There was only a mention of an Age Restricted Overlay District zoning change and code numbers. The only way anyone could possibly have known that Ridgefield Rd. was included in this regulation would have been if they read the notice in the newspaper and decided to go to Town Hall to check the regulation on a whim. Even then, you would have had to research and read the regulation to unearth any mention of Ridgefield Rd. where it is cited only once. That’s a lot to ask of people who are directly affected by such a sweeping regulation as this. Unless you were Jim Fieber, [183 Ridgefield Rd. LLC attorney] Casey Healy, the Planning & Zoning office or first selectman Lynne Vanderslice, you likely had no idea that Ridgefield Rd. was a part of this regulation in November 2016.

The AROD regulation affects the entire 5.2-mile length of Ridgefield Rd.. The way it was passed is inconsistent with an open, transparent, more neighborly process. If the Town was confident that AROD was in our best interests, why weren’t key stakeholders better alerted? Why didn’t they make sure they had public input? When it takes years to get a dog park established or a relatively minor modification of an existing ordinance (as in the HDC’s demolition delay), why was this AROD zoning regulation that affects hundreds of property owners passed in record time of less than six months without any outreach to those most affected? Who decided that Ridgefield Rd. was an appropriate location for AROD? Where is the analysis or research conducted to support its inclusion? Were other state roads, such as Rte. 106, considered? Since earlier Wilton Bulletin articles cite our town planner Bob Nerney saying AROD will be located on roads that have access to town sewer and water, when and more importantly, why did his position change to include Ridgefield Rd., which only has septic systems and well water?

Eventually, I learned that the only way to formally express these questions and concerns was to file an amendment to the AROD regulation. So I wrote a check for $460 and filed my amendment, based on reviewing the many instances in our town’s 2010 Plan of Conservation & Development (POCD) that conflict with the AROD measure being permitted on Ridgefield Rd.. The fact that my effort has galvanized hundreds of residents and multiple town organizations should signal to the P&Z commissioners that there is an unmet need to hear what we have to say.

I hope that our commissioners can recognize the merit of the many concerns being raised, and reconsider the full impact of this regulation before the P&Z vote tonight.

GMW:  Can you describe what kind of organization you’ve been able to build, resulting in ‘Preserve Wilton’? Were people eager to join, how has the group been meeting, coordinating, what other kinds of things has Preserve Wilton been working on?

VM:  Here’s the funny thing–Preserve Wilton isn’t what I originally set out to form. While I was participating with the League of Women Voters to address the topic of historic preservation in Wilton, I intended to launch a website celebrating Wilton’s heritage to feature many of the historic homes of Wilton, provide brief histories, note interesting architectural features and so on. And I registered www.preservewilton.com to do just that.

But the group everyone now knows as Preserve Wilton is a group trying to remove Ridgefield Rd. from AROD. And once this matter is resolved, I will return to more fully developing that website and promoting Wilton’s heritage.

In the meantime, Preserve Wilton seemed like an apt name for a collection of residents who started gathering in the aftermath of that February P&Z sewer meeting. Initially, many Preserve Wilton members were primarily Ridgefield Rd. residents eager to join, but our cause has now attracted many residents who live well beyond Ridgefield Rd.. These non-Ridgefield Rd. residents recognize that other historic roadways, such as Nod Hill, could be ripe for this type of development too.

People were very upset about the real threat AROD poses to our property values, our daily routine and the many attendant problems this type of denser development represents:  from increased traffic along a roadway that is already overburdened and precariously narrow for the rate of speeds cars travel, to the additional erosion endured by many like myself who live on the east side of the road from the increased water runoff during the destructive storms that seem to have multiplied in their frequency and ferocity in the past five years. These were among the more notable issues that people felt a need to address.

Everyone found it astonishing that, despite reading the coverage in the Bulletin and GOOD Morning Wilton, there was never once any mention of the locations to which AROD would apply prior to the regulation passing. That’s a pretty stunning feat on the part of our town:  to enact a massive zoning change affecting scores of citizens and only a handful knew. In just a few short weeks, we managed to attract a group that has grown to hundreds to combat this.

GMW:  When you saw the standing room only crowd at the May 8 meeting at the Library, and what seemed to be almost everyone in the crowd in support of your petition, and the position that Ridgefield Rd. should be removed from the AROD reg., what did you think? How did you feel?

VM:  It felt great! Honestly, I’d been receiving emails and calls nonstop since February when this whole thing began at that P&Z meeting, so it didn’t really surprise me to observe the size of the crowd because I invited most of those attendees! Obviously, it was very encouraging, since it signifies an outstanding display of concern. But most importantly, the size of the crowd demonstrates that people throughout town are united in the desire to protect what we all recognize is a valuable town asset.

For most of us, our homes are our biggest investments. Many have shared with me their sense that in addition to the stress they feel watching their property values hover at all-time lows, they now feel even more helpless because a zoning regulation such as AROD is sure to decrease those values even more. That knowledge is made worse by the fact that these homeowners never even had the opportunity to address it beforehand. In a town that prides itself on its recently enacted inclusivity proclamation, we see the opposite when you consider the process in which AROD was approved. The fact this AROD zoning regulation appears to have been deliberately pushed through to avoid full public debate, and was formulated and enacted so swiftly, just does not feel right to a lot of people.

GMW:  The tone of the meeting got pretty adversarial. What do you think about the events–from the chairman’s gruff demeanor, to Lynne Vanderslice’s remarks regarding comments made about Bob Nerney, to the passion of many speakers?

VM:  I’ve been reflecting on the tone of the meeting. It was unfortunate and did at times feel like the chairman and others adopted an adversarial position to the application and to the speakers, and I knew there was a possibility that members of P&Z would feel as though challenging their vote on the original regulation was a personal attack, but I was still surprised.

I understand the Commission is comprised of volunteers. But their decisions have dramatic impacts on the financial situations and quality of life of hundreds of Wiltonians. Their decision over the course of a couple of months could irreparably change the character of a neighborhood which has existed since the early 1700s. I still hope that, despite the tone of the last meeting, the members of P&Z have maintained an open mind. The amendment application and all the points raised by members of the public should be considered. I sincerely hope personal feelings can be put aside and don’t play into the decision.

The passion of the speakers was undeniable, and palpable. People are rightfully upset at how this process was handled, with so little regard for homeowners. There is no question that people’s comments and emotions were amplified by the fact that they felt overlooked.

Each time someone spoke, I don’t know about you, but I could relate to their concerns. These are hard times for many. We’re in a situation where there is a glut of housing for sale. From some reports I’ve seen, local real estate appraisers estimate the AROD effect on properties along Ridgefield Rd. is likely to translate to a $100,000 decrease in value for each of the more than 140 single family homes on Ridgefield Rd. alone.

Add in the neighboring properties along the side roads and the total is more like 200 homes being immediately affected. This is supported by a similar trend that occurred in the wake of the widening of Route 7 and the razing of homes when the ‘Super 7’ issue was happening some years back. Even if we didn’t have any hard data, troubling questions emerge:  Who wants to live opposite a housing complex despite how luxurious it is? Why would you buy a house when you have no idea if one day a developer will come along and knock down the house next door and build a high-density development on the land? Do people moving to Wilton want to deal with any of this, or will they more likely avoid Ridgefield Rd. entirely once they learn about AROD?

To illustrate how myopic the measure is in thinking that the tax revenue for a cluster development is good for the town, multiply a devaluation of $100,000 per house by 200 homes. Losses incurred via a reassessment would more than nullify any gains.

In my family’s case, we have put many improvements into our house over 13 years. But even if we put in a fraction of that, we are still barely above the level we purchased at over a decade ago. That’s pretty dismaying. So to think that our investment is now likely to be further devalued by a zoning change none of us had any control over is incredibly hard to accept. As one resident appealed, “it’s just not neighborly, no notice, no nothing?” And he’s right. Our town should not treat its citizens this way.

It would have been one thing if AROD came about through a thoughtful, transparent process where views from the town were sought, where the town did an actual study on the types of housing needed by older residents, and studied and analyzed where the housing should be located to avoid harming other residents. I had expected to find analysis like that in the public file. But I found none of that.

From the documents I was provided, the first instance I found of any mention of a special age-restricted district was in an email from Fieber Group’s attorney Casey Healy to Bob Nerney, our town planner. That email was sent in February 2016 with a subject line that said “183-ARHD reg.” And it was forwarding a copy of an age-restricted housing development zone regulation that had been drafted by the Fieber Group. Remember this happened over two months before AROD was first officially discussed in a P&Z meeting. That February email implies that the AROD regulation was first conceived, drafted, and pushed through by a developer who stood to benefit.

I read the meeting minutes. I read the staff submissions. There was no discussion of why Ridgefield Rd. was included. The only references to Ridgefield Rd. that I found were once when the regulation was read into the record on the date it passed and the subject line of the Fieber-Healy-Nerney email chain. So, yes, I questioned what’s going on. That wasn’t the only question asked by people at the hearing that was heard as an accusation. The questions from the public show the confusion as to how this could happen. How could something so important be passed with virtually no one even knowing about it.

The first selectman made clear she’s known Bob Nerney a long time. In my dealings with Bob, he was always kind and cordial with me, and helpful, as was his staff when I asked for documents. I have no issue with that. I question the process by which AROD was created to include Ridgefield Rd.. It was a simple question. The town proposed a regulation. It seems to have come from a corporate entity that stands to benefit from its passage. If that is true, is that ok? If that is not the timeline and there is some other basis for the regulation being applied to Ridgefield Rd., why hasn’t it been shared with the public?

I also questioned the origin of the town documents and brought it to everyone’s attention because I didn’t know whether our P&Z commissioners were aware of any of this. And I think they, like the rest of us, should be.

GMW:  You’ve gotten a lot of support from Wilton “establishment”–Bob Russell, the Historical Society, the Land Conservation Trust, and more. What do you think about that?

VM:  Honestly, I am humbled and gratified that the Wilton Land Conservation Trust, The Wilton Historical Society and the Historic District Commission have stepped up to let the P&Z Commission and the public at large know of their concerns and their unique interest in preventing inappropriate development like AROD to happen on Ridgefield Rd.. I think it reinforces the position that including Ridgefield Rd. in AROD was a mistake. Mistakes happen, but this one needs to be fixed.

GMW:  Jim Fieber spoke to us last week, and said he hoped for better “collaboration.” What do you think about what he said in our interview?

VM:  That’s another thing I’m happy to clear up:  this is not about Jim Fieber, or any developer for that matter. This is about the town. I’m all in favor of collaboration. But it needs to happen between the town and its citizens. What is our long-term plan? What is the vision? These are the questions that need answering.

GMW:  Do you have any thoughts about the current conceptual plan Fieber submitted? 16 units, a 3- plus acre conservation parcel that Fieber says will be permanent meadow, deeded in perpetuity.

VM:  I believe it was 16 units, a recreational building, plus a 2 acre lot, wetlands in the rear, and a proposed strip for conservation along the road. It’s a conceptual plan that ultimately means nothing. He’s not bound by it. Remember, the Fieber Group initially requested a subdivision of five lots in compliance with the two-acre zone. Then it went to 35+ under AROD. Then it mushroomed to a threat of over 60 units of affordable housing. Now it’s 16 units plus a house. I don’t know what the developer plans to do. And none of us will until there is an actual site plan proposed to P&Z.

I recall reading in some of the news coverage that the houses in the 35 unit proposal would be priced around $1.5 million which was interesting because in the P&Z meeting minutes about AROD, commissioners voiced support for it because it was supposed to help seniors who needed more affordable housing. $1.5 million is twice the average house price in Wilton, so I’m not sure that’s what P&Z had in mind when they passed AROD.

But I will say that a strip of conservation land at 183 Ridgefield Rd. doesn’t really solve the problem. The road isn’t compatible with higher density developments. It’s about density and the inappropriateness of allowing high-density housing along the entirety of Ridgefield Rd.. No single application is the issue. It is bigger than that. No special permit and application process will be enough to eradicate the problems unfettered development like AROD will prompt. Given the lack of analysis and discussion behind the choice of Ridgefield Rd., I would think that those facts further reinforce the sense of many citizens that our town has ceded control over land issues to profit-driven developers. It is just minimizing our concerns and transferring the burden to residents to continue to monitor this landscape application by application simply to stay aware of the constantly changing landscape. That is not responsible land use management or leadership. It definitely is not planning. It’s also the reason we have a Plan of Conservation & Development, so that higher density housing is steered to more appropriate locations of town, as outlined in that town-wide planning document.

Many towns are concentrating their higher density development in their town centers, to make more vibrant downtowns where people can walk to stores, restaurants, train and take advantage of other forms of public transportation. With AROD, Wilton would be doing the exact opposite.

GMW:  I thought it was so unusual that Jim Fieber approached you at the beginning of the May 8 meeting and that you and he appeared to speak with one another a few times. He said you and he had “a dialogue,” and that he even got you to smile. How do you characterize the conversation and the way he described it?

VM:  Despite what’s going on, Jim and I are neighbors, and even though we are at opposite ends of this issue, we’re going to be civil and courteous, and yes, even share a joke or two, when we can. But because I don’t bring any authority or negotiating power to any land use deal with him, it would probably be best if our first selectman might consider meeting with him. Perhaps she could partner with an organization like the Wilton Land Conservation Trust–who has a keen interest in his property for their own valid reasons–in an effort to craft a town-wide solution to this problem. Possibly the solution could involve a land swap.

GMW:  What do you hope will happen at tonight’s P&Z meeting (with a larger venue in the Clune…) when the public hearing is continued?

VM:  I hope that the members of P&Z will look again at the POCD and see that it discussed age-restricted housing, but purposely excluded Ridgefield Rd, from that discussion; that the process of creating the POCD took into account citizens’ thoughts; that there are health, safety, environmental, heritage, traffic and other concerns that make Ridgefield Rd. wrong for inclusion in AROD. I also hope that everyone, on both sides, is respectful and that there can be open communication. And obviously, I hope that the commissioners vote in favor of my amendment to remove Ridgefield Rd. from the AROD regulation because it is not in the best interests of the town.

GMW:  Anything else you want GMW readers to know?

VM:  I want to thank you, Heather, for taking the time to allow this piece to be shared with your readership. I hope that people will come out to attend the meeting on Monday night and have their voices heard. I also hope people understand that this isn’t an anti-age-restricted housing position, an anti-development position, or an anti-Fieber position. Everyone is in favor of housing for Wilton’s older population, and there are plenty of suitable locations in town. But as several speakers said, Ridgefield Rd. should never have been among the first locations; it should have been among the last, given all the heritage, traffic, and environmental considerations.

This is about protecting the history and character of a road which has been in existence for centuries. This is about protecting the unique views which qualified this road as one of only four state scenic roads in all of Fairfield County. People make trips just to see this scenic road! This is about protecting our property values from devaluation due to the density and drainage issues the regulation presents. This is about the safety of our residents from high-density traffic on a street with steep slopes, narrow lanes, tight curves, and almost no signal lights. If you ask Wilton residents which is the most beautiful and charming area in Wilton that epitomizes its character, I would bet an overwhelming majority would say Ridgefield Rd.. Non-Ridgefield Rd. residents acknowledged this at the hearing. This is what is at stake at this hearing. This is about all of Wilton, and I look forward to standing side-by-side with its residents trying to protect it on Monday.