Empty Ridgefield gas station still draws questions
Empty and abandoned for decades, the former Hilltop Service Station on Wilton Road West remains a source of curiosity and concern in the community.
“Would someone please buy this?” — showing a photo of the unoccupied building — said a July 12 post on the Ridgefield Facebook page. It had generated 290 comments as of Tuesday evening.
“... it’s an eyesore on one of the most scenic roads and not a very nice ‘welcome’ sign for our town,” wrote one person about the station, which is located along Route 33, shortly before the Wilton border.
“... would ride my bike there and return empty Coke bottles for 2 cents and buy Bazooka bubble gum with the money,” added a longtime Ridgefielder.
The building, at 60 Wilton Road West, is owned by Conte’s Country Farm Store LLC.
“I’m going to sell if there’s somebody to buy,” said Mario Conte, the Norwalk businessman who is the principal in the LLC.
Indeed, a sign out front says: “For sale by owner.”
“There are a couple of people that are interested,” Conte told The Press in a phone conversation Tuesday night, July 21.
Conte had appeared before Ridgefield’s Zoning Board of Appeals in 2005, showing plans for a country store. He got what he needed from the town, but his plans for a family-run store there didn’t work out.
“My dream flew away,” he said.
The store concept for the site — which had been a gas station for many years before closing, but was a sotre before that — had been introduced about a year before Conte came to the appeals board, by the local contracting firm Sturges Brothers.
“We got the Sturges Brothers a variance for the country store, but it was discovered that the well was contaminated with gasoline before they took on the project,” attorney Bob Jewell said, when asked about the about the site.
First Selectman Rudy Marconi, too, remembered well contamination as the problem.
“To my knowledge it is a contamination issue from the old gas tanks when it was a gas station,” Marconi said in an email Tuesday. “There have been past issues with an adjacent property’s water quality, but I have not heard anything lately.”
Jewel said he’d heard, back at that time, that the amount of gasoline the water supply suggested that the problem might not have been a leaky tank, but deliberate contamination.
The Hilltop Service Station has a history that goes back to the 1920s —before Ridgefield had zoning regulations — when it was a small store with a couple of gas pumps.
“The owners sold gas and oil and had an outdoor rack for repairs of vehicles,” said Charles Creamer, former chairman of the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, in a 2006 interview with News Times reporter Susan Tuz. “Then in 1947, zoning came in and the store was grandfathered in, in the residentially zoned area.”
Owned by the Jensen family, the business operated until the late 1960s, when Shell Oil bought the property and knocked down the structure, replacing it with the current building. Shell discontinued retail sales and began doing minor automotive repair.
In the 1970s, Creamer recalled, Shell returned to the board with a proposal to expand the building to allow more ambitious repair work.
But there was an outcry from neighbors and the request was denied.
The owner of the franchise for the site appealed the denial all the way to the state Supreme Court, which upheld the zoning board’s decision.
“The case set a precedent for zoning,” Creamer told Tuz in 2006. “Zoning could be used to deny expansion from limited repairs to general repairs.”
The business remained in operation for another seven years, and then the property was sold. The buyer was Walter Gengarelly — an anti-tax activist in Ridgefield and a former Libertarian candidate for governor of Connecticut. He pumped gas from the site until the business went into foreclosure.
The Sturges Brothers revived the retail-store concept that had been at the site before zoning. And eventually the property was sold to Conte, who came before the appeals board with his own vision for a “country store” on the property — and got approval.
“The neighbors supported it,” Creamer told Tuz. “But nothing happened.”
And still, in 2020, people drive by the property and wonder why it’s empty, and what’s in the run down gas statian’s future.