As Ridgefield gets older, its town plan must be adapted

Ridgefield’s population is getting older as aging residents decide to stay put in New England rather than escape to the sunny beaches of Florida.

That was one of the takeaways from a presentation given to the Planning and Zoning Commission earlier this month.

Glenn Chalder of Planimetrics, the firm hired by the commission to rewrite the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, told the planners the country “has never had a population distribution like what we’ll have in the future.”

“More like Japan and Italy,” Chalder told the commission. “As a country as a whole, with the advancements we’ve made in health care, we’re heading for a population pyramid that we’ve never experienced before.”

People move to Ridgefield and they decide to stay, he explained. But at the same time, the population of younger Ridgefielders is expected to decline as younger generations have fewer children.

“If we were a company, who are our customers?” Chalder posited. “Our engine here, our brand, tends to be younger families who come here for our schools and all of the amenities.”

He suggested the town might consider “mothballing” a school — closing the building until enrollments begin to rebound.

“How the population is likely to change is a question we need to consider,” said Chalder.

It’s not the first time the idea of closing an elementary school has been voiced.

Rebecca Mucchetti, chairwoman of the the commission, recalled the school board considered closing a school in 2012, 2014, and 2016, but has scrapped the idea each time.

‘American Dream’

Several commissioners noted — after some rough calculations — that while the schools received between about 70%-80% of the total town budget, only around 20% of the population actually attends the schools.

Chalder suggested that was not out of the ordinary for similar towns in Connecticut.

Facing the cost of a mortgage and utilities on a large home, older residents are continuing to downsize and move toward the center of town, Chalder pointed out.

“Renting is really popular right now in Ridgefield,” said Commissioner George Hanlon.

“I kind of was raised on the American Dream where you buy a house,” said Chalder.

“Yeah, I got suckered into that, too,” Hanlon said, cracking a smile.

Survey

The commission also agreed — without taking a formal vote — to have Chalder survey residents to get a sense of what the town values in its updated plan.

Commissioners suggested they were more inclined to conduct a combined telephone and online survey, rather than an open meeting.

“When you have a public meeting, all the usual suspects show up,” said Commissioner John Katz. “But it would seem to me a telephone survey would be more random by definition.”

Chalder noted that the telephone survey would balance out “bias” if the survey went viral on social media. The telephone and web survey also localize residents’ responses by area, so the commission can see what issues matter most to separate regions of town.

Commissioner Bob Cascella signaled that he was in favor of including both the online and telephone survey, out of concern that one viewpoint could flood the survey online.  

“They’ll go on and say we want them to fly red balloons at night,” he said.

Chalder said the phone survey would begin before Thanksgiving — but after the election season ended.

He said he’d return with another update for the commission in the new year.

“I think I have my marching orders. Happy Halloween, Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,” he said.

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