Ridgefield has developed a ‘very in-depth’ affordable housing plan. Some say that may be its problem

RIDGEFIELD — A draft plan that lays out how the town could add 125 affordable housing units over five years has drawn criticism from community members.

The draft document, created by the town’s Affordable Housing Committee and required by state law, outlines where affordable housing would make sense in Ridgefield and how the town could encourage it.

But during recent meetings on the issue, community members have said they’re worried about how the plan could affect traffic, open space and the nature of the town. They’ve also said they haven’t had enough opportunity to provide input on the plan.

“I appreciate all the hard work of this community but I believe our plan should focus on preserving our beautiful small town, its architecture and structures, its landscape and its open space, as much as possible,” Ridgefield resident Christine More said during the public comment of the Board of Selectmen’s Wednesday meeting.

David Goldenberg, who chairs the committee, said he still wants Ridgefield to keep the “personality” that its residents love. Traffic studies would be conducted before projects moved forward, while the plan does not propose building on land designated for open space, he said.

“There is a well demonstrated critical need for more housing of all types, not just affordable housing, but housing of all types and the state is determined to help bring that about,” he said. “The question is: Do we want to do it our way or do we want to have state imposed mandates?”

‘In-depth plan’

The town is likely to miss the state deadline to file the plan by June 1. First Selectman Rudy Marconi plans to request an extension from the state to give the town extra time.

Following a second information session scheduled for Saturday, the Board of Selectmen will hold a public hearing on the plan on May 25. That wouldn’t give the board enough time to discuss and approve the plan, he said.

And there’s much to discuss.

“It’s very in-depth,” Marconi said. “It’s very detailed, and the detail is something that perhaps can be minimized. When you get into the number of units to be built on a specific piece of property, I think it’s a little premature. We need to have goals, set up realistic goals with a timeline of achieving them. We can’t force people to build affordable housing. All we can do is try and lay out a plan where we can work with developers to achieve that plan.”

For example, the plan envisions adding 15 to 20 deed-restricted units over five years in the Branchville neighborhood and building up to 70 units of affordable housing at Prospect Ridge, an about 15-acre parcel of town-owned land. The Ridgefield Housing Authority’s Ballard Green development could also be expanded, according to the plan.

These projects would require further approvals. That’s particularly true at Prospect Ridge, where voters would need to OK the project during a town meeting, Marconi said.

“That kind of was the shock that went into the plan and impacted people because they’re saying, ‘How can you identify a piece of property where you have no control over it?’” he said. “And the Affordable Housing Committee does not have any control. It’s own by the people of Ridgefield.”

The Planning and Zoning Commission has similar concerns about the depth of the plan.

“It’s pretty comprehensive,” Chairman Robert Hendrick said. “Having said that, I think that’s actually one of the things that’s tricky about it.”

The commission reviewed the plan’s 19 recommendations during its Wednesday meeting and planned to submit feedback to the committee prior to Saturday’s information session.

“Our recommendations are kind of focused on simplifying the plan,” Hendrick said. “We think it’s got a lot of ambitious goals and some of them in a sense overlap with each other.”

Residents have questioned why the town didn’t save itself from writing its own plan and sign into the Western Connecticut Council of Government’s regional plan. Towns had the option to create an annex to this plan,

The regional plan has faced criticism from housing experts because it suggests, in part, that suburban communities could pay a fee to have affordable units in neighboring municipalities count toward their affordable housing goals.

Typically the town’s Planning and Zoning Department would create the affordable housing plan, but the committee opted to take it on due to staff departures. Marconi said Goldenberg told him he wanted to continue with the committee’s plan, even after learning the town could sign on with WestCOG.

“I’ve looked at some of the annexes that have been filed and most of them are not substantive,” Goldenberg said. “It seems to me Ridgefield would want to have a plan based on Ridgefield’s own needs developed by Ridgefielders.”

Transparency concerns

Ridgefielders have complained that the process wasn’t transparent and that they didn’t have the opportunity to get involved.

“If you really want to have a good plan, let’s have a good plan,” one woman said at the Board of Selectmen meeting. “Let’s really get the citizens involved. A lot of us didn’t even know about this until a couple months ago. I didn’t.”

Residents have claimed that Goldenberg alone is spearheading the plan, but he and Marconi said the committee worked on it and provided feedback.

“Now, I along with one, two, three other members drafted the text of the plan because that is something that you can’t have too many people sitting at the keyboard,” Goldenberg said. “However, the draft plan was reviewed by the committee.”

The plan was released to the public when no other committee members had comments, and the committee will meet again to decide whether to revise the plan before the Board of Selectmen’s vote, he said.

The draft plan notes that a public information session was held last November, while the committee conducted interviews with about 35 stakeholders. Goldenberg noted that meetings have been held publicly and many are available to watch online.

“I don't know how much more transparent we could be,” he said. “This has been an inclusive process.”