Having persevered through the daunting land use application process and endured some occasionally nasty public debate over plans to open a bed and breakfast a year ago, Cathy Savoca was welcomed as the Planning and Zoning Commission’s new member Saturday, Dec. 1. Commissioners voted 6-to-0 to appoint her to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Tim Dunphy, who’d resigned to move to New York.
Savoca told commissioners her experience as an applicant had given her an appreciation for the task they face, dealing with facts of an application but also the public’s fears and emotions.
“It’s about analyzing those facts and those concerns,” she said, “and putting yourself in a position where you can make a decision with some nuance to it.”
She was asked what issues she felt would challenge the commission moving forward.
“I do think it’s important to continue to work on affordable housing in Ridgefield,” Savoca said. “The other is creating ways for businesses to want to be in Ridgefield.”
Earlier in the interview she had responded to a question on affordable housing by endorsing the goal of economic diversity in town.
“I am supportive of the construction of well-done affordable housing in Ridgefield,” Savoca said. “… If you have a community where you can’t afford to live if your are a school teacher, you are a public servant, you are a construction worker, you are a landscaper — I think that’s problematic.”
Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti asked if, as a longtime resident, there were decisions by the commission that struck Savoca as ill-advised. Mucchetti added that she cringed a bit every time she drove by the large condo complex where the old Red Lion restaurant stood just north of by the intersection of Route 7 and Route 35 — a projected approved not by the commission’s vote, but through a court appeal, she pointed out.
“There are sizable projects that literally are cringe-worthy — it does not feel right for our community,” Savoca said.
Change can be uncomfortable.
“From 25 years ago, driving down Main Street on a Saturday — it is a different experience,” she said.
Her words were remarkably similar to something the other candidate interviewing for the vacancy, Susan Consentino, had said during her interview — conducted with Savoca out of the room.
Consentino had described the communications challenge she felt the commission faces, with a public that doesn’t always pay attention to hearings and regulations, but does see the results when projects are approved and built.
“I think there are questions when people see a project go up: Who allowed that? How did that get through?” Consentino said. “… You’ve been here a while and you look at Main Street and know how it was, and then something changes and you see it.”
Consentino, who teaches dance at Founders Hall and also had a corporate career in real estate and communications, had won the endorsement of the Democratic Town Committee.
A third candidate, Lawrence Perry, had expressed interest in the seat, but didn’t formally interview having missed the deadline to apply. Perry, a former member of Greenwich’s wetlands agency, nonetheless showed up at Saturday’s meeting and introduced himself. Chairwoman Mucchetti suggested he might be interested in running for Ridgefield’s Inland Wetlands Board, when it becomes an independent elected agency next fall.
Bed and breakfast
Commissioners had clearly been impressed with Savoca, not only from Saturday’s interview, but from what they’d seen of her during her fall 2017 presentation for Front Porch Farm, a bed and breakfast she and her husband, Tom, won approval for on Circle Drive.
There was active opposition, and the application process had ballooned to include dueling lawn signs, websites and digital newsletters.
“It was without question the best presentation I’ve seen, being on this commission over 41 years,” commissioner John Katz said of the application Savoca had gone through, handling the bulk of it herself.
Commissioner Joe Fossi said he too had been impressed with the way Savoca handled the process.
“Kept your cool,” he said to her, “stuck to the facts.”
He added, “You certainly stayed involved after your application was over.”
After the B&B was approved, Savoca had continued to attend commission meetings. And, with her experience in the hospitality industry, she’d also worked with the town’s Economic and Community Development Commission, assisting its efforts to expand the hotel accommodations in town.
Savoca was asked what she’d learned from going through that sometimes contentious approval process.
“It was a matter that exploded in a way that neither my husband nor I would have expected,” she admitted.
“The majority of the opposition was extremely respectful in their opposition — and there’s nothing wrong with disagreeing,” she said.
But she also suggested some of the more extreme opposition had helped keep her in the fight.
“We were being bullied, and we didn’t want to give in ot that,” she said.
Savoca was asked if she thought she’d have the time, having taken on a new job in July as chief of staff to the CEO of Kirk Palmer Associates, a boutique executive search firm.
She’d discussed the matter with her new boss, she said, and explained that it mean she wouldn’t be able to work late on Tuesday nights. He’d been supportive. She added that she had a long train commute which offered time to do “homework” on whatever the commission is working on.
“I don’t tackle anything unless I’m in a position to do it well,” she said.
The motion to put Savoca into the vacancy was made by Bob Cascella and seconded by Charles Robbins. It passed with support from the other four commissioner present: Chairwoman Mucchetti and Commissioners Katz, Fossi and Joe Dowdell.
All the commissioners said they’d felt there’d been “two great candidates” and it was difficult to choose.
“Can we expand it to 10?” Robbins said of the nine-member commission.
Chairwoman Mucchetti told Consentino, the unsuccessful candidate, that three of the people now on the commission — herself, and commissioners Fossi and Katz, had to try more than once before they succeeded in getting on the commission.
“If you’re lucky,” Katz added, drawing on personal experience, “you can get turned down three times and then serve for 41 years.”
“I’ll be back,” Consentino promised them.