Is Ridgefield overcrowded? Survey shows split on future of town development

Preserving open space, enhancing the downtown shopping district, and protecting natural resources were three of the top responses Ridgefielders gave in a survey that was conducted in November and December.

The survey, which was launched as part of the Planning and Zoning Commission’s 10-year update of the town plan, also revealed that residents believe the town needs more affordable housing but would like to see more control over development in the future.

High taxes, increased school spending, and the cost of living were also listed as concerns throughout the survey.

Others listed building the tax base as a concern.

“How do you build a tax base without having development?” said Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti at the commission’s Jan. 2 meeting.

She said she was surprised that good schools were not higher on the list of reasons respondents said they moved to town.

“We hear so many people say we came here because of the schools,” Mucchetti said.

Glenn Chalder of Planimetrics, the firm hired by the commission to rewrite the plan, noted that around 60% of the households surveyed have only one or two people — no kids.

“That explains the tension over budget,” said Mucchetti. “You’ve got 60% of the people who don’t have kids in the schools, but the schools are 80% of the budget.”

Too big?

In total, 428 were surveyed — some responded online; others over the phone.

Of 100 residents surveyed by phone, 22% identified something related to town character as the greatest challenge or need facing Ridgefield. Residents said they are concerned the town is “getting too big,” and that there are “too many new developments.”

The concern that Ridgefield is becoming overdeveloped surprised some commissioners.

“There have been four really controversial applications within the last two years that have developed a life of their own,” said Mucchetti. “That gives the sense of controversy, but it’s been interpreted as overdevelopment.”

Chalder pointed to the fact that the survey was conducted at the height of election season while signs opposing the Ridgefield Winter Club were displayed prominently on lawns throughout town.

Diversity

At least one respondent is concerned that Ridgefield will become a sanctuary city — a town or city that declines to help federal immigration authorities from tracking down and detaining undocumented workers. That drew confusion from the commission until Commissioner Cathy Savoca pointed out the town had resettled a refugee family from Syria.

“But then beside that we have lack of diversity as an issue,” said Vice Chairman Joe Fossi.

Protection

Chalder said that “protecting character” is what he took as a message from the survey.

“It’s been the hallmark of Ridgefield for decades,” he said.

On the online survey, respondents chose “preserving open space” as the most important topic or issue that should be addressed in the 10-year rewrite of the town plan, with 154 residents including it in their first, second, or third choice. “Protecting natural resources” was included by 137 respondents.

“But if character is so important, and if we want to keep the character we have, who do they think has been preserving, protecting, and developing it?” asked Mucchetti.

“They don’t think. They only think about what they read now, not what happened ten years ago or twenty years ago or yesterday,” said Commissioner George Hanlon.

Infrastructure

The plan lays out a roadmap for the commission to create regulations for development and conservation in the next decade.

Thirteen percent of those surveyed by telephone gave an answer related to infrastructure when asked what the most important issue facing the town is. Several named the town sewer system — voters approved an upgrade to be paid for with a mix of taxes, state grants, and increased fees in November — improving road conditions, improving access to public water, and traffic congestion.

‘Small town feel’

Through the online survey, 143 respondents listed “invigorating/enhancing downtown” as one of three topics or issues that should be given emphasis in the plan — the second highest number of responses. Economic development was ranked fourth on the list, with 115 respondents saying it should be a priority in the plan.

Of 327 participants online, many alluded to concerns about the Ridgefield Winter Club when asked about the greatest challenge facing the town. Words like “maintaining,” “preserving,” and “small town feel” appeared to echo the sentiments of the “protect residential zoning signs” on lawns throughout town.

Mucchetti was concerned that it has “generally been accepted as fact that we allow commercial activities in residential zones, and we don’t.”

Commissioner John Katz seemed to reject that.

“Witness what’s been going on for the last three months,” he said “From the perception of the public, that’s commercial … It’s certainly known to the residents of the neighborhood [as commercial]..”

Chalder said he wants to make sure the commission has “the right tools” to confront anything that’s submitted under the town zoning regulations.

“Somebody could apply for anything — they could apply for a mini-nuclear reactor in their backyard,” said Chalder. “I think you have the right tools to say that would be an unreasonable impact on the neighborhood.”

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