Hoping to boost commerce and taxes, the Planning and Zoning Commission will have a public hearing this week on a “Gateway Enhancement Zone” that would allow retail stores — if not too big — in most of the business area along Route 7 near the intersection of Route 35.
The proposal, which grew quite contentious as the commission worked on it at numerous meetings in 2012, has already prompted some debate in the business community.
Joy Strand, chairwoman of the Economic Development Commission (EDC) said discussions with Route 7 area property owners had gotten supportive feedback.
“It’s been very positive, from what we’ve heard back so far. We’ve tried to touch base with as many of the property owners as possible. We held a meeting to get their feedback on the draft language last Thursday night. They were all very much in favor of it, the ones that attended the meeting — about 12 or 15 — and then some more commented by email or phone.”
Since the fall when the Planning and Zoning Commission started getting close to having a proposal, at least some village businesspeople have expressed concern. Wayne Addessi, who is both a retailer and a landlord on Main Street, was among those with concerns.
“Before there is retail built anywhere in a large capacity, a Chamber of Commerce and EDC cooperative effort needs to be established along with members of the community,” Mr. Addessi said in an email Tuesday. “We need to talk with owners of commercial property to gather more input as to what would be best for Ridgefield but not for a few individual owners.”
The public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 15, starting at 7:30 p.m. in the Town Hall Annex, 66 Prospect Street.
Town Planner Betty Brosius has worked with the Planning and Zoning Commission to design a set of proposed changes to improve the area’s current B-2 zone — which allows a variety of service, office and warehouse-type business uses, but does not permit retail stores.
“It is evident to me that there is a need for change in the regulations in the Route 7 corridor in order to facilitate things like design review, positive changes in aesthetics, and traffic circulation between adjoining properties,” she said.
“Since this is the ‘gateway’ to northern Ridgefield, it will be important to promote positive changes for future development and re-development within the corridor.”
The proposed gateway zone change would affect most of the business property along Route 7 from Haviland Road north to the Danbury line. The zone would include a couple of the small properties with frontage on Route 35 just before the intersection.
There are some retail properties now in the area that either predate the current zoning and were grandfathered in, or were granted zoning variances by the Zoning Board of Appeals.
As proposed, the new gateway zone would specifically exclude a few properties in the Route 7 and 35 area, notably the large senior citizen complex that includes Laurelwood nursing care, Ridgefield Crossings assisted living, and the Toll Brothers age-restricted housing. It also leaves out the 50-acre Ridgefield Professional Office Complex in the former Perkin Elmer-SVG light industrial site. Some parts — to the rear — of the Golf Performance Center would also be excluded.
The most controversial change proposed in the gateway zone is to allow retail uses. Because of concern about “big box stores” coming in, the commission limited retail uses to 20,000 square feet — a little bigger than the Walgreens and attached liquor store on Route 35 near Grove Street.
The gateway zone would allow apartments above commercial space, but after much discussion this was limited to four units per property.
Hotels, motels and commercial kennels would be dropped from the uses permitted in the zone, but gas stations, car dealers, car repair shops, and contractor’s “facilities” — no longer “yards” — were kept.
The commission in its discussions often left in uses it was considering taking out, or limiting, with the idea that it could reach a decision on the matter after listening to townspeople at the public hearing.
“We expect the proposed regulation to be further refined, as the discussions continue,” Ms. Brosius said.
“I think there’s a sincere concern on the part of the commissioners that they listen to both sides. There’s actually three sides — the public at large, the downtown property owners, and the Route 7 property owners.”
The people most affected — property owners on northern Route 7, in the proposed new zone — are generally behind the changes.
“Property owners have been meeting with the Economic Development Commission, and most seem to be in support of the proposed changes, from what I have heard,” Ms. Brosius said.
“There is concern about new requirements for landscaped buffers, increased setbacks, sidewalks, etc., and the commission may need to build the opportunity for exceptions into the regulations, when topography, wetlands, existing conditions, or other factors limit full compliance with these new requirements.”
What opposition there is seems to be based in the downtown or village commercial district.
“We have seen only a few letters of concern, but others may attend the public hearing to speak directly to the commission. The concerns are focused on the fear that the retail opportunity will draw business out of Main Street and downtown Ridgefield,” Ms. Brosius said.
“But the commission proposal limits the size of retail on individual properties to 20,000 square feet, and this number may be further refined during the public hearing discussions.”
Ms. Strand of the Economic Development Commission said discussions with Route 7 area business and property owners suggested the new zone would mean different things to them, depending on how they’re doing and what their plans are.
“It would give opportunity to owners who are struggling — a little bit of extra flexibility to bring in new tenants or new business opportunities,” she said.
“The additional aspect of that is there are also a number of very, very strong businesses in the area,” she said. “Their current business models are working well, but in the long term it would be good to give them a little flexibility.”
The current non-retail commercial zoning can be quite restrictive.
“Right now they show services or products, but no one can leave with any sort of product, no one can purchase a product,” Ms. Strand said.
“There have been some spot-zone variances along the years,” she added. “From our feedback, P&Z has looked to standardize that, give everyone the same opportunity.”
She thought some on-the-ground changes might follow from a reworking of the zone, but felt they would probably come over time, not in a sudden flood.
“Some property owners wouldn’t change their current use, but thought it would be good for the zone in general and the long-term viability of their property,” Ms. Strand said.
“Others said we’re looking at putting further investment into our property and our business model, and being able to have some ancillary retail within that business model would be very helpful in getting that investment off the ground sooner, and more successfully.”
The Economic Development Commission has been working to expand Route 7 zoning for three or four years, Ms. Strand said, although she thought previous economic development groups had kicked the idea around long before that.
Mr. Addessi, the village businessman, said Route 7’s big asset — all that traffic — was also its problem.
“Dangerous location for shoppers with traffic access off of such a ‘racetrack.’ You ever try to either turn into or come out of any one of the locations there?” he said. “Anyone exiting there now takes their lives in their hands just slowing down to exit.”
A lot of traffic engineering would be required to accommodate the all-day in and out of a retail area.
“What may work well there in place of shops or mini-superstores is either more office space, industrial space, more medical offices,” Mr. Addessi said. “Additionally, assisted living may be good, too, and even age-restricted living.”