The prospect of a hotel with banquet facilities drew strong support at a public hearing last week, in advance of Monday’s town meeting on a $1.25-million sale of five Schlumberger acres.
“We have a need for quality hotel space in this town,” Chuck Hancock said. “It’ll draw people into our town. It’ll be good for The Playhouse and restaurants and businesses.”
About 30 people attended the hearing and 12 spoke — 10 in support and two skeptical of the sale and its timing.
“I expected to see a holistic plan for how we can develop the entire site,” said Dick Larson of Belvedere Court.
The town meeting vote is scheduled Monday, Dec. 16, at 7:30 in town hall on the sale to developer Steve Zemo. Mr. Zemo has offered $1.25 million, with a commitment to develop the site as a three-building complex with a hotel that has banquet facilities, a self-storage facility, and a building that has 11 apartments above ground floor office space.
In the selectmen’s request for proposals — Mr. Zemo was the lone bidder to respond — they’d asked for a price and a development plan.
The proposed “Old Quarry Commons” would be worth an estimated $13-to-$17-million, Mr. Zemo said, and pay the town from $231,000 to $302,000 a year in taxes.
“That represents more than Schlumberger was paying on the 45 acres when they left us.” Mr. Zemo told the crowd.
In Mr. Zemo’s site plan, the 48-suite hotel with banquet facilities is in a 40,000-square-foot building that would be high on the sloping site, just off Old Quarry Road and near the 25-foot setback along the western property line with the Treetop Townhouses.
A 25,000-square-foot building would have offices on the ground floor, with 11 apartments above.
The apartments wouldn’t be deed-restricted to satisfy the state’s definition of “affordable” and count toward meeting goals in the 8-30g law. But the two-bedroom units would function as affordable, Mr. Zemo said.
“They have very few amenities. A good honest place to live,” he said. “Affordable twos allow people to share, if you’re working in a restaurant….
“We’re creating a lot of jobs here. There’s no 11 o’clock bus to Danbury. We need folks who can live and work in the community.”
The self-storage building would be down near town’s sewer plant — placed to serve as a visual block for both the hotel and many Treetops units. The 45,000-square-foot building would have drive-in garage bays, and two levels of storage units above that.
“No orange doors here,” he said.
Voters approved spending $7 million on the Schlumberger property two years ago, with the thought the town could recover some of the money by selling off parts of the property with deed restrictions to guard against over-development.
At last week the selectmen slighted amended the proposed deed restriction to say development on the site “shall be limited to those uses specifically permitted as of right or special permit under the Ridgefield Zoning Regulations, or as may be amended by the Planning and Zoning Commission of the Town of Ridgefield by a commission-initiated amendment. The aforesaid limitation shall not be modified by any variance granted by the Zoning Board of Appeals…”
Many of the dozen people who spoke at the hearing were enthusiastic about the proposed sale and Mr. Zemo’s plans — especially the hotel and banquet accommodations.
“For years our non-profits have had to go to New York State or Danbury or Redding for a facility that will hold 200 people for their galas,” said Jeanne Cook, who has served on the boards of town arts and cultural institutions.
The longtime owner of a travel business, Ms. Cook once represented Ridgefield on the regional Housatonic Valley Tourism Council.
“Today, 25 years later, we have many more attractions and the potential for being a tourist destination.” she said.
The Playhouse regularly brings in nationally known musical acts, the town has museums and arts groups, she said, as well as bike and hiking trails, a golf course — and its charming downtown with shops and 35 restaurants.
“We need tourist dollars to support our cultural institutions,” Ms. Cook said. “We’ll also benefit our Main Street businesses.”
Chuck Hancock of North Street agreed.
“It’ll tend to make Ridgefield a destination,” he said.
He also liked the combination of tax revenue, and a sale price that could help recover some of the $7 million taxpayers spent on the property.
“It’s a win-win financially,” Mr. Hancock said.
Marion Roth, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, said that people come to the chamber office asking about overnight accommodations. Ridgefield has a couple of “wonderful” smaller places to stay — Stonehenge, the West Lane Inn, the Green Rocks Inn — but more rooms are needed.
“There’s a huge amount of people going to Danbury, and we lose out on the restaurants and shopping once I send them up there,” she said.
Mr. Zemo’s location, she thought, would benefit the business districts.
“It’s walking distance,” she said. “It meets a need, and the need is here now, and will bring revenue to everything that’s here.”
She said the proposed banquet facilities would serve a need evident from the number of events benefiting town organizations — including even the Chamber of Commerce — that are held out of town because there’s no venue big enough.
Frank Altese of Glen Road said he’d had a celebration at the Lounsbury House — which was barely big enough — and struggled finding rooms in town, so many guests stayed in Danbury.
“We booked West Lane, we booked Green Rocks, some people stayed at Stonehenge,” he said. “But almost 70 people stayed at the Ethan Allen hotel, and I had to transport people to Lounsbury House.”
As a Realtor, said Jefferson Gutherie, he works with many people from out of town.
“Clients get into my car and I have to give them a list of ‘Here are the hotels up in Danbury,’ ” he said.
David Luppino, a resident of The Treetops off Grove Street and Old Quarry Road, said people in the complex had met with Mr. Zemo and appreciated the 25 foot setback in his plan — a requirement in the selectmen’s contract with Mr. Zemo.
“Our preference would be that the acreage not be developed. We recognize that’s not realistic,” Mr. Luppino said. “We’re very comfortable with the plans he’s laid out.”
There were some doubts raised at the hearing.
Dick Larson thought the selectmen should slow the process down.
“If we’re going to get long-term maximum value for this property, we’d be much better off with an integrated plan for long-term development.” he said.
“Let’s get the whole picture in front of us before we start bidding pieces of it out.”
With new police and fire stations on the town’s long-term agenda, Paul Ciavarelli said, voters might regret selling land right next to the town garage and other facilities.
“The town’s going to be forced to expand the fire department and the police department,” he said.
“You’re going to run out of space. There’s no other tracts in the center of town.
“If you needed a fire department, you’d have to spend a lot of money for a piece of property,” he said.
“I wouldn’t sell it, myself.”
Jeff Bonistalli Sr. replied to these concerns, saying other areas of the Schlumberger site could hold police, fire or other facilities.
“There’s another section — five, 10 acres, behind the Goodwill,” he said, referring to the charity drop-off trailer.
Linda Lavelle pointed out that the five-acre property is a separate parcel, across the street from the main 40-acre Schlumberger tract.
“The parcel of land is set off all by itself,” she said.
“We have a buyer. My feeling is we have a high quality purchaser here.
“If we delay and delay and put it off, we’ll lose our buyer,” Ms. Lavelle said. “I’d recommend we move forward as quickly as possible.”