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Citizens group sues to halt Gateway Zone

Opponents of more retail on upper Route 7 have filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the new ‘Gateway Zone’ adopted May 14 by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

“We feel they have not done nearly enough research to understand what the effects of this zone will be on the town,” said Helen Dimos of Citizens for Responsible Planning, the group of property owners who brought the appeal.

“We feel that the Planning and Zoning Commission acted really hastily and precipitously and irresponsibly,” she said, “without enough information on the potential effects of the new retail designation out on the highway, particularly since most contemporary planning priorities focus on the health of town centers, pedestrian accessible shopping, and development nodes close to public transportation. This doesn’t qualify on any of those.”

The complaint on behalf of the group was filed last Thursday, June 6, by New Haven attorney Marjorie Shansky. In it she describes Citizens for Responsible Planning as “an unincorporated association of owners of property and residents of Ridgefield…”

Ms. Dimos said that joining her on the group’s steering committee are: Ellen Burns of Great Hill Road, who owns of Books on the Common; Wayne Addessi, a Main Street retailer and landlord; and Joseph Heyman, a former selectman and former longtime member of the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Markel Elortegui of 32 Dogwood Drive is named in the complaint as a plaintiff who owns property within 100 of feet of the new zone — giving the group standing to appeal the zone change.

There is a larger group supporting the lawsuit, Ms. Dimos said, and she expects to more.

“There are quite a few people in the group,”  she said. “We have not contacted a lot of people so far.”

In adopting amendments to create the new “GZ7 zone” last month the commission added “limited retail” — up to 8,000 square feet per tenant and up to 20,000 square feet per lot — to parts of an existing B2 business zone that runs along Route 7, from the Danbury line south to a little way past intersection of Route 35.

At the highway intersection the zone extends south to end of the John’s Best Pizza restaurant property on the Route 7 side, and reaches over to include Route 35 properties as far down as the small shopping center at 590 Danbury Road.

In all, the new zone governs 35 parcels covering 57 acres.

Town Planner Betty Brosius said the commission’s lawyers had reviewed state statutes and advised that in the case of a zone change, the filing of a legal appeal challenging it “does not stay the zone change” and prohibit private landowners from pursuing development under the guidelines of the new zone.

But an appeal does mean property owners undertake development under the new zone at their own financial risk, should the zone be overturned — effectively putting most development on hold.

“In the case of the GZ7 appeal, the zone change remains in effect but applicants would be going forward at their own risk until the appeal is resolved,” Ms. Brosius said.

The legal complaint filed on behalf of Citizens for Responsible Planning critiques the commission’s decisions from numerous perspectives.

The zone change passed on a close 5-to-4 vote with at least one dissenting commissioner “vehemently opposed,” Attorney Shansky said, following a public hearing where substantial opposition had been expressed.

“At the public hearing,” she wrote, “many concerned neighbors and members of the public, including experts, presented credible and substantive testimony and evidence to the commission regarding:

  • “Traffic congestion and safety issue attendant to the introduction of even limited retail uses…
  • “The actual increase in accidents at the intersection of Route 7 and 35 since certain convenience retail was introduced in 2009;
  • “The likelihood of environmental degradation as a result of increased development and vehicular traffic associated with retail uses;
  • The unsustainable development patterns reflected in the GZ7 Zone that is contrary to good planning and will undermine and dilute the stability of the town center…”

The complaint agues: “The decision of the commission is not supported by reasonable or substantial evidence, is contrary to the evidence presented to it, and does not find a basis in fact of law…

“The commission made findings and reached conclusions that are inconsistent with and contrary to the substantial evidence and testimony presented to it about traffic congestion, accidents and safety.”

Asked for comment, Planning and Zoning Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti was restrained.

“We expected the appeal, so it’s not a surprise,” she said. “All we’ve done is receive it, nothing further in terms of time lines or anything.”

She added that the commission’s attorneys always urge members not to discuss the substance of lawsuits filed against them.

“Once an appeal has been taken,” she said, “counsel’s advice is we cannot and should not talk about it.” she said.

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  • Starting Over

    It’s funny, but not that long ago, there was all this clamoring from the town “fathers” about the impact ONE gas station (Stop & Shop) would have on neighboring properties. Lighting, traffic, noise, etc. However, no one seems concerned at all about the impact this will have. It’s so much larger in scope and depth.

    Kind of makes you wonder who has skin in the game……

  • Secondhand Rose

    Sounds like a case of locking the barn door after the horse has gotten out, to me.

  • Secondhand Rose

    There wouldn’t be so much traffic congestion on Route 35 if there were a few more main roads to get through and into the center of town, either. Since the only major way is Route 35, of course it’s going to be severely backed up every day. Widen some of the other roads into town; create more roads branching off the main one(s) so that drivers can get to and from town faster and easier and avoid the traffic backups.

    You think it’s bad now, just wait until the state begins to replace that bridge just beyond the Rec Center. THEN you’ll REALLY see some serious “traffic congestion.”

    (But of course, if there was at least 1 or 2 other ways to get into town that didn’t take drivers significantly out of the way like Old Ridgebury, or were easier to find and use, we might not even be discussing this…..)

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