Schlumberger: Townmoves toward a sale

Hoping to maximize taxpayers’ take while staying true to the original motive for the purchase — to avoid over-development — the selectmen are laying the groundwork for a sale of about 10 acres of former Schlumberger land off Sunset Lane for residential construction.

The selectmen have hired Planimetrics, a consulting firm that has worked in the past on the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, to work up a zone-change proposal to accommodate residential development of a roughly 10-acre portion of the Schlumberger site.

The Board of Selectmen unanimously approved the contract Wednesday night, Jan. 16, for up to $10,000 of work on the project.

“Planimetrics will be looking at density, and what kind of a development would work best in that specific area of our town,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi told The Press.

“If we’re looking for people to bid on the property and there’s no clear understanding of what can be built there, then how would one bid on it? The density will drive the value of the property.

“But the density, also, is important in terms of the neighborhood and our original purpose for the purchase, which was to control the actual development on this parcel,” Mr. Marconi said.

“So, from the financial perspective, the more units the higher the value. And it’s going to be that balance that we create with the correct number of units, so we’re not exceeding a rational development for Sunset Lane, while at the same time generating revenue that will help reduce the investment in the property.”

The investment in the property is $7 million — $6 million of it purchase price — that voters in a December 2011 referendum approved spending to buy the 45 acre property from Schlumberger. The oil exploration support firm had moved  its the scientific research operations,  housed on the site for decades, to Cambridge, Mass.

The focus of the plan is a 10-acre area known as “Parcel C” that has long been thought most appropriate for residential development because it  lies between the small-lot homes on Sunset Lane and the Quail Ridge condominium complex.

“We have always said we wanted to sell those 10 acres for residential development, to help recoup our investment,” Mr. Marconi said.

At Wednesday night’s meeting, Mr. Marconi told  the selectmen that Glenn Chalder of Planimetrics had told him there was about four acres of the 10-acre parcel that were really suited to development as housing, and among the questions would be how many units could be accommodated in that area — increasing the value — while keeping in tune with the neighborhood’s aesthetics.

Wednesday night Mr. Marconi and the board decided to set up a meeting with Mr. Chalder, at which board members and the panning consultant could have an informal talk, exchanging ideas about the site and what might work well there.

With the goal of maximizing the return to the town, Andy Bodner suggested there was a a little bit of additional land that might also be considered for residential use.

“I’d like them to look a little broader than 10 acres,” Mr. Bodner said.

In an interview before the meeting Mr. Bodner, like Mr. Marconi, spoke of balancing the goal of recovering a good portion of the $7 million investment with townspeople’s desire to avoid a big high density development.

“The town bought the Schlumberger property, not because they wanted to be the real estate business, but because they wanted to protect the future of the town from high density housing,”  Mr. Bodner said. “The intent was always to sell part of the property to recover most if not all of the investment the town made to acquire the property.”

The arrangement with the consultant is for “hourly charges with a not-to-exceed $10,000” limit, Mr. Marconi said, and he did not expect the board to balk at approving it.

Planimetrics of Avon worked on the last two updates to the Town Plan of Conservation and Development — in 2000 and 2010. The firm also worked with Town Planner Betty Brosius and the Planning and Zoning Commission on comprehensive update of the town’s zoning regulations in 2007, and on a 2002 plan for the Branchville area.

As a result Mr. Chalder, the principal of Planimetrics, is well versed in the town, its geography, assets, problems, planning challenges and community values.

He also has experience working with the Planning and Zoning Commission, which will ultimately have to vote on any proposal to change the zoning of the Schlumberger property.

“He will be working with the Board of Selectmen and land use agencies for the design of a residential development and the zoning request in order to have this development proceed,” Mr. Marconi said.

“I’m talking about requesting a modification to the zoning along Sunset Lane that will accommodate a residential development,” he said. “Then we would go to the Planning and Zoning Commission for the modification of the zone. The town would as the applicant and, once approved, would then market the property for sale.”

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is overseeing Schlumberger’s clean-up of pollution on portions of the 45-acre property. But the 10 acre “Parcel C” off Sunset Lane has been cleared by the state for use, or sale, without  clean-up.

“We’re now at a point, with the DEEP sign-off, that we can begin moving forward with a Planning and Zoning zone application,” Mr. Marconi told The Press. “And that is where Mr. Chalder will bring his professional skills to the table.”

Mr. Marconi said the town planned to put deed restrictions on the number of units that can be built on the land before selling it, since zoning limitations can be circumvented by developers using the state affordable housing law.

“My understanding on deed restrictions is: Any change requires approval of the person or entity that placed the restriction on the deed,” he said.

Mr. Bodner said there are other parts of the Schlumberger property that the town may want sell. He has long advocated that the selectmen move quickly to sell property and reduce the $7 million debt from the purchase.

“We also have the five-acre piece behind Ridgefield Fitness which is currently clean and zoned commercial, to address as well,” he said.

“And longer term, the 30 acres in the middle.”

That 30 acres— where Schlumberger is still doing environmental clean-up, as required by the state — includes buildings a local resident has approached Mr. Marconi about as a place to house an extensive art collection.

“We’re still working on it,” Mr. Marconi said of that potential option. “That party is still very much interested in proceeding.”

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  • Kirk

    Nothing has changed … they have just hired a consultant and are spending even more money.

  • David

    Why is one town department hiring an outside consultant to deal with another town department?

    If navigating the choppy waters of P&Z regulations is complicated, who better to guide us through the process than P&Z themselves. Just ask them to do whatever steps and paperwork is necessary. We’re all the same town, we all work for the same boss. Save us the consulting fee.

  • While the selectman may have hired the right consultant, they could have negotiated a better contract. Hourly charges with a not-to-exceed clause is one of the least beneficial fee structures. Fortunately, this is a very small project. I hope that in future engagements with consultants, the selectmen will choose contract terms that produce better results at lower cost and risk.

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