Retail on Route 7: The debate continues

The proposed new zone allowing retail uses would now be limited to the top yellow area. The lower yellow area has apparently been dropped from retail consideration.

The proposed new zone allowing retail uses would now be limited to the top yellow area. The lower yellow area has apparently been dropped from retail consideration.

The debate over adding limited retail to business uses along northern Route 7 will continue on May 7.

The Planning and Zoning Commission voted 8-1 in favor of continuing the public hearing at a special “work session” meeting Tuesday, March 26. Commissioner Nelson Gelfman opposed the continuation.

The commission heard from a three-person subcommittee that had been working on amending the original proposal, which received significant backlash at the first public hearing on Jan. 15.

“We do think there were some good points made during the public hearing,” said Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti, who led the subcommittee. “In response to those suggestions, the subcommittee raised the zone line north about half a mile, so instead of the proposed zone being one and a half miles, it’s only nine-tenths of a mile.”

The new proposed zone starts at John’s Best Pizza and extends northward to the Danbury-Ridgefield line. It excludes Regency at Ridgefield, Laurel Ridge and Ridgefield Crossing, said Ms. Mucchetti.

She said the new proposal includes approximately 35 parcels, or lots, and 57 acres, which is less than the original proposal of approximately 48 parcels and 82 acres.

Within the approximately 57 acres, there are eight and a half acres and five parcels of the zone that have been deemed “vacant constrained lots” because they are 95% wet and essentially not developable, she said.

The subcommittee recommended that no single occupant or tenant occupy more than 8,000 square feet.

With multiple users, “the lot itself can still support 20,000 square feet if you have more than 1.84 acres,” said Ms. Mucchetti.

Commissioner John Katz voiced the strongest dissenting opinion, criticizing the revisions and the “downzoning” proposal itself throughout the meeting.

“Owners who bought property in this area knew exactly what this zone is and what it could become,” he said. “They would benefit from the downzoning, while exacerbating a lot of other issues in town. After reading the proposal, these aren’t suggestions being made here, they’re opinions. It doesn’t say anything about the traffic congestion on Route 35 — it would be unimaginable.”

“Limited retail does not exist,” he added. “This is a mistake and it’s not something the town needs — it’s what certain property owners need. It’s borderline criminal.”

Commissioner Phil Mische said the revised proposal was “light of data” and needed a lot more information before it could be approved.

He had problems with the changes because they failed to address what the “smart growth in the zone will be” and said that the planning needs a cross connection between properties to avoid  sprawl.

He added that there is not enough depth in the proposed lots to foster the growth “we want to get from this.”

Some of his suggestions to the commission were to create “a maximum build-out scenario” that estimates the change of ratables, cost-benefits and impact new retail would have on property owners.

“I don’t see how these owners will work together in this zone,” Mr. Mische said. “It would be great if we could get it done, but I’m not going to hand someone the keys to this and let them drive blind — there’s not enough in here.”

Chris Fisher and Joy Strand of the Ridgefield Economic Development Commission (EDC) described their own research since the public hearing in January.

Mr. Fisher said the zoning change wouldn’t affect the center of town and that more than $1 million of retail demand is not being met.

“All of the retail demand is leaking out,” Mr. Fisher said. “We broke the town into three areas — Downtown, Branchville and the Gateway on Route 7 — and concluded there’s a tremendous amount of retail demand not being met and properties are still in need of development.”

In response to Mr. Katz’s concerns, Mr. Fisher said that from the EDC point of view, the project would be beneficial to more than just certain property owners.

Mr. Katz rejected this “opinion” and continued to label the proposal as “a bad idea.”

“We’ve been working on it for 12 years — it’s a topic we must continue to talk about,” Ms. Mucchetti said.

Mr. Katz retorted that there wasn’t justification for the discussion to continue any longer.

He said, “It may have taken 12 years, but that’s how long it takes to consider an item like this. My biggest concern is that I still don’t see any justification for limited retail.”

Commissioner Michael Autuori  would like to see the proposal go away, but added that because this is a commission-initated proposal, the members “must listen to the people of Ridgefield.”

“The most important input we can receive towards this proposal comes from the townspeople,” he said.

Commissioners Joseph Fossi and Peter Chipouras, who rounded out the three-person subcommittee, echoed that opinion and added that the commission had a duty to the town.

“Our responsibility is to develop the town,” Mr. Chipouras said. “Since the previous public hearing, we’ve done our research, gathered the proper information to release to the public, so now it’s time to hear what they have to say about our changes.”

Mr. Autuori reversed his opinion later in the discussion and said he supported the continuation of the public hearing on May 7.

Mr. Katz remained wary of the proposal and said that it was the commission’s “only crack at controlling this situation,” but voted yes to continue the public hearing.

“This project will be impossible to undo,” Mr. Katz said. “Once it starts, it won’t end, and that’s why I think it’s a mistake.

“I look forward to the public hearing and what they have to say about these amendments.”

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