Handshy eyes additional acre on Sunset Lane

Developer offers $780,000 to build six more units

Jay Metcalfe and Marty Handshy of Charter Group Partners at Ridgefield LLC. — Macklin Reid photo

Another six townhouse units on the Schlumberger property?

It’s something the selectmen have been given to ponder, as the developers of the 77 Sunset Lane complex — filled with 45 coach homes and nine condominiums on 10 acres of former Schlumberger land acquired from the town — are offering to buy one more acre so they can build six more units.

“We made an offer to the town,” said Marty Handshy of Charter Group Partners at Ridgefield LLC. “We propose to put in two more townhouse buildings — two clusters of three, six units.”

Charter Group’s current development is for nine townhouses — three clusters of three — on the site off Sunset Lane. One of the three, 15-unit coach home buildings is largely done, and a second is under construction. The foundation has just been laid for the third, Handshy told The Press last week.

The price offered for the one-acre site was around $780,000, according to First Selectman Rudy Marconi. The town’s top official said that’s subject to negotiation.

“It would be six units, at $130,000 per unit for land — that was one number tossed out, but no one has agreed to that. I’d say it’s a minimum,” Marconi said.

“That’s what they are thinking. The price will be higher. It’s got to be negotiated.”

Selling the land would require a vote of the Board of Selectmen to move forward, followed by a public hearing, and then favorable vote of townspeople at a town meeting or referendum.

The money

The offer’s main attraction is the money, according to Marconi. The possible land sale comes at a time when town revenue from the state is likely to shrink, and keep shrinking, as Hartford tries to solve its vexing budget problems.

In addition to the purchase price, there would be annual taxes. According to assessor Al Garzi, the taxes on townhouse units at the development that have been completed range from $13,800 to $17,000 a year — depending on the size and specifics of the unit.

“What it represents is the potential to pay off the balance of that property — that is the only reason I, personally, would consider this,” Marconi said.

The town originally approved $7 million for the Schlumberger purchase — a $6-million sales price for the 45 acres and another $1 million for environmental clean-up, demolition of buildings, and other capital costs, such as legal fees, appraisals, and development plans.

According to Controller Kevin Redmond, the town’s costs now total $7,751,000, due to expenses “associated with the cleanup, which proved more costly than first anticipated.”

Offsetting that are proceeds from two sales: Charter Group Partners paid $4,300,000 for the 10 acres they’re currently building on; and five acres on the other side of Old Quarry Road were sold for $1,250,000 to Steve Zemo — now a selectmen, but a private citizen at the time of the sale.

Other offsets to the town’s costs include: a $385,000 state grant; and $145,000 in insurance proceeds from water damage in the Philip Johnson building on the site, after the town took possession.

Subtracting the $6,080,000 in offsets — $4,300,000 and $1,250,000 for the two sales, plus the $385,000 grant and $145,000 from insurance — from the total cost of $7,751,000, brings town outlays for the property to $1,671,000.

The town has made two payments against the original $7 million in bond anticipation notes it floated at the time of the purchase: $250,000 was paid out in fiscal year 2015-16, and another $450,000 was paid in 2016-17.

So, counting those two payments made, the proceeds of the two sales, the state grant and the insurance money, the town’s remaining debt to be paid is $971,000.

In a statement outlining its proposal, Charter Group Partners said: “The purchase would bring the town close to recouping all of the money the town spent to purchase the Schlumberger property which was of vital importance when the town approved the original purchase.”

Parking

The one acre that the developers seek to purchase is close to a 50-car parking lot the town is planning to serve the old Schlumberger auditorium that the town has agreed to rent out to a non-profit theater group, and the Philip Johnson building which is being rented as office to a New Canaan design firm.

The acre is closest to the auditorium — roughly 40 feet — and lies maybe 140 feet from the Philip Johnson building.

The Charter Group Partners note that zoning would require their new buildings to be set back 50 feet from that property line — making the shortest distance from their proposed buildings to the auditorium about 90 feet.

“They’re not at same level,” Handshy added. “Our buildings are lower than the auditorium, just because of the way the topography works.”

They also plan a landscaped visual buffer between their new townhouses and the auditorium and parking lot.

The natural drop from the planned parking lot to the new buildings is about 17 feet, so planting 10-foot trees along the property line would in effect create a 27-foot screen, Handshy said.

Amphitheater

Another concern for the town to consider is how the proposal might affect the recommendation by the Schlumberger Citizens Committee that the remaining 30 acres of the property include open space trails and an outdoor cultural center for concerts and shows. Committee drawings show a proposed semi-circular hillside amphitheater overlooking an outdoor stage.

Dick Larson, chairman of the committee, has heard the Charter Group Partners outline their offer, but hasn’t taken a position on the proposal.

“The Citizens Committee was discharged last June after the Board of Selectmen accepted our final report. In that report we recommended that any property sale be considered only for uses compatible with the amphitheater/stage concert area and after the plan for that was complete,” Larson said.

“Plans for the concert area, which was one of the most-requested uses of the Schlumberger property, are in early stages. The proposed sale would reduce the on-site parking somewhat and move residences closer to the concert area. Assessment of this is underway but not completed.”

Larson said that he’d want to walk the property, and see the proposed acre staked out, before forming an opinion.

“I haven’t developed a firm point of view either way as to whether this is a good idea,” he said. “I am going to do a site visit to see how close that acre would be to the concert area, and what it’s impact on parking would be …

“We took a first pass at what the impact would be on parking,” he added. “We’re driving toward a total of 500 parking spaces, based on a first look at the impact on that area, we would lose some parking. We’d still have about about 270 on site, and the rest of the parking would be across the road at the town garage building.

“A site visit is really important to get a real visual of what the impact would be on parking and proximity to the concert area,” Larson said.

“If it turned out that we could not do the concert venue, my recommendation would be that we not do it — but until the site visit, it’s hard to say.”

‘Negligible impact’

Charter Group Partners say that the sale of the one-acre parcel would not prevent the town from pursuing plans for an open-air cultural center.

“The proposal has negligible impact on the proposed cultural center recommended by the Schlumberger Citizens Committee,” the partners said in their document outlining arguments in favor of their offer. “The proposed plan has been designed to retain all of the parking for the auditorium and ample parking for the proposed cultural center — if the town chooses to further develop the property.”

“It’s not either-or. You can accomplish both, here,” Handshy said in an interview. “It doesn’t effect the trail network. You can still do the bandshell.”

“It has the potential to be a real win-win, where the town is almost made whole for the purchase of the Schlumberger property, and get to retain the vast majority,” said Jay Metcalfe, another member of the Charter Group Partners.

The Charter Group Partners say their hope is to buy the one-acre site and get needed approvals in time to begin work on the six additional units without really stopping from the original project, which they expect to finish roughly a year from now in June 2018.

To do that, they’re hoping to see the selectmen bring their proposal to a vote of townspeople by the early fall.

“We think it’s a unique opportunity,” Handshy said, “but it’s got limited duration.”

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