Retail zoning at Ridgefield’s northern “gateway” could drain the commercial life from the town center, make horrible Route 7 traffic worse, and leave residents with roots in Long Island and New Jersey feeling too much at home.
Those were some of the thoughts of speakers Tuesday night as a new “gateway” zone — which would add “limited retail” to the business uses allowed along a mile and half stretch of northern Route 7 — got slammed at a Planning and Zoning Commission public hearing.
“I think what the panel should do is get in a van and drive to Long Island,” said one opponent. “Pavement, asphalt, no trees, wasteland!”
The two and half hour session heard 24 members of the public speak — 17 of them opposed.
Five speakers supported the plan, four of them owners of property in the new zone’s area. Two people discussed plans to add a traffic light in the vicinity, without offering opinions on the zone.
“Route 7 is a by-pass of Ridgefield,” said Joe Ancona, who noted that he had a variety of business interests in Branchville — Ancona’s Market, Ancona Development, The Tusk and Cup.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, rezoning a big stretch of Route 7 will do nothing but suck the life out of Ridgefield center,” he said.
Helen Dimos, a resident with “no dog in this hunt” in terms of business property, said “Main Street is already suffering from a dwindling critical mass of viable stores, and this proposal will only help to drain the life out of our shopping areas,” she said.
“It is against all planning principles that I know of to create new commercial strips that bypass towns. Development should be concentrated in the center to reinforce the vigor of the central business district and of Branchville to encourage people to walk rather than get in their cars.”
Not all the opposition was based on business worries.
“I have to leave my driveway doing 70,” said Dawn Zimmerer, a resident of Stonehouse Commons on Route 7. “You call it a gateway. I call it ‘the autobahn.’ I have to leave my driveway at the risk of my life.”
She also has troubled turning into the condo complex.
“I get honked at, sworn at, flipped off,” she said. “I get hassled because I want to turn into the driveway into my home.”
Five other residents of the Route 7 and Route 35 area — another from Stonehouse Commons, three from The Regency, one from Laurel Lane — opposed the concept.
“I just seems the people who live here are getting the least benefit, and the most hassle,” said A.J. Langer of Stonehouse Commons.
Planning and Zoning Chair Rebecca Mucchetti offered some perspective on the proposal, which the commission put together after addressing the northern gateway had lingered on its to-do list for years.
“We know many of the property owners there are frustrated,” she said.
The new gateway zone would keep most of the uses in the current B-2 zone, and add “limited retail” — with a cap of 20,000 square feet of retail space per property.
The area includes most business property along Route 7 from the Danbury line down to Haviland Road, but excludes the area of Laurelwood, Ridgefield Crossing and Regency at Ridgefield, as well as the medical center by Little Pond (see other story).
The new zone would total 82 acres. Of 48 properties in the new zone, 13 are large enough — 1.84 acres —to accommodate the full 20,000 square feet of retail allowed, while meeting the proposed 25% building coverage rule.
The hearing showed many town center business people are worried by the idea.
“We really, truly, sincerely believe it’s going to impact Main Street negatively,” said Ellen Burns, who owns Books on the Common. “There’s a lot of empty space.”
Ms. Burns said she’d turned in a letter signed by 14 other village retailers.
“There’s only so much retail a town our size can support,” she said. “How can we know, if you add another whatever thousands of square feet of retail on Route 7, it’s not going to suck the life out of Main Street?”
Wayne Addessi, a retailer and a commercial landlord in the village, said, “This will hurt Main Street dramatically — that’s what we believe. In the last few years, three years, we’ve had a lot of difficulty keeping tenants. We’ve renegotiated leases, We’ve reduced rents…”
He gave the commission article showing big box retailers were now building smaller stores to get into some areas.
“It scares me,” Mr. Addessi said. “I have Squash’s as a tenant. If Staples comes to Ridgefield, what happens to Squash’s?”
Many of the Route 7 business owners are friends, customers in his store, he said, and they face problems, too. “We need help on Main Street and they need help on Route 7. What that happy medium is — it’s not retail,” Mr. Addessi said.
Joseph Heyman, who served on the Planning and Zoning Commission when retail uses were removed from Route 7, said, “We took retail off Route 7 for a reason,” he said.
The commission should seek to protect Main Street and the village, which give the town its character, he said.
“Downtown Ridgefield is struggling — it’s just holding on. To add this, I think, is a great disservice,” Mr. Heyman said. “I’m depending on you to preserve this little thing that gives us our identity, our heart.”
Linda Lacey said she lives in town and has worked 15 years renting space in Urstadt -Biddle commercial buildings on Main Street and Bailey Avenue — often to local people starting businesses.
“Your own residents believe so much in this town they want to own businesses here,” she said.
The new gateway zone would likely be different.
“The uses that are going to be developed on Route 7, they’re going to be the national chains,” she said.
There were a few voices in favor of adding retail.
Gerald Roche, owner of 590 Danbury Road, a small commercial property, said he had some spaces where retail was permitted, through a grandfather clause, and those he could rent. In other spaces retail isn’t allowed, and they’re tough to rent.
“We have office space down there. That is not a potentially good use. I’ve had that vacant for years,” he said.
Retail could help.
“From my perspective, it’s not a huge windfall, but it would certainly help rent vacant storefronts,” he said.
Tom Gartrell of Sunburst Plumbing, which is in the Gateway area, liked the idea.
“The bottom line is, it already exists as a business zone. Everybody needs to realize change is coming,” he said. “I believe ancillary retail would be good.”
Ed McGill owns BMW of Ridgefield, which has redeveloped its dealership property on Route 7 in the proposed gateway zone.
“I just thought I’d talk in a positive vein about development,” he said. “We saw it as an opportunity. We spent a lot of money on the property. We’ve doubled the size of the business…
“Competition is not a bad word,” he said. “There can be 14 Italian restaurants in town. The ones that survive will be the ones that serve the needs.”
Marion Roth of the Chamber of Commerce made a similar point.
“I’m not in charge of excluding people,” she said.
She suggested the commission consider allowing hotels and conference centers in the zone, and look at perhaps 15,000 square feet — as opposed to the proposed 20,000 square feet — as the size limit of a retail uses.
“I think we should let the market conditions take place,” Ms. Roth said.
John Tartaglia, who lives in The Regency residential development in the area, asked the commission to slow down.
“You’ve gotten a lot anecdotes. You need detailed, factual studies,” he said. “Please don’t make a decision quite yet, You don’t have the data.”
Ms. Mucchetti said the hearing would be re-opened, but she wasn’t sure when.
“We’ll reconvene at some point and have this at the table for discussion,” she said. “And see where we are, what we want to do.”