Ridgefield farm seeks to turn gas station that’s been empty for 50 years into country store

RIDGEFIELD — Big changes are coming to the former Hilltop Service Station on Route 33 in town  — preliminary plans are underway to turn the property into a country store.

The old gas station, a 2,000-square-foot freestanding building at 60 Wilton Road West, has stood empty for 50 years. It's owned by Contes Country Farms LLC

There's now a contract on it for purchase, and the applicant  — Whitney Freeman, owner of Henny Penny Farm on Ridgebury Road, is interested in buying it and turning it into a country store. 

"We are so thrilled to be able to serve our community with an extension of Henny Penny Farm, our working and teaching farm in the north end of town, at our future country store at 60 Wilton Road West," Freeman said. "However, we are very cautious to get too excited just yet as there is quite a long road ahead."

The gas station had become contaminated from leaking gasoline tanks and Freeman is working with the town of Ridgefield, in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to assess and clean up the site.

"The tanks were removed but samples were never taken of anything. There was never any soil testing done. It was just back filled and that's where it has sat," Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi said at a recent selectmen meeting. "We're pretty much starting from the beginning."

In 2005, the gas station property was approved by Ridgefield's Zoning Board of Appeals for a country store.

"In fact, there was an application at one point to P&Z (Planning & Zoning) but it was backed away from because of the contamination," Marconi said.

The building has had a long history in town. Previous owners include the Jensen family and Walter Gengarelly, an anti-tax activist in Ridgefield and a former Libertarian candidate for governor of Connecticut.

Grants 

To help pay for the clean-up, Freeman is applying for an Environmental Protection Agency grant. EPA grants, which are issued through the U.S. government, work to help organizations achieve their environmental goals, its website says. 

"The EPA offers a Phase I and Phase II grant where you have to apply. When you're accepted, they will hire the team that comes in and does all the Phase 1, Phase 2 work on the grant," Marconi said, adding the team can include an environmental scientist.

"They may put in more monitoring wells to investigate the amount of contamination, if there's still contamination there, etc. If so, how much is there?" he said. 

He said the first phase will give a better picture of "what you're dealing with. Right now we don't really know what we're dealing with. It's just the historical data or information that tells us that the gas station was contaminated."

 A second grant Freeman could be eligible for is a CT Department of Economic and Community Development grant.

Marconi said the town is reviewing both grants to see what role the town can play in them. 

Ridgefield has been an active participant in the grant process, to be able to generate future tax revenue from the property, Marconi said.
 
According to the town's tax assessor, the assessed value of the property is $273,000. 

"The taxes would go up with the improvement of the property," he said. "That's why we as a town would love to (offer support) in any grants." 

Marconi said Freeman is taking big steps to turn her plans with the gas station a reality.

"She's doing tremendous research and talking to everyone," he said. "She knows it's gonna be a long process. It's gonna be years but she's searching the grants and asking the town to work with her on that." 

At the selectmen meeting, Selectman Sean Connelly said Freeman would be a great person to turn the gas station property around since she has done a lot with Henny Penny Farm.

"There is so much potential for this site to continue to honor and represent Ridgefield's agricultural roots in meaningful ways to our community," said Freeman, who opened Henny Penny Farm to the public in 2015 and has lived in town for 14 years.

"I do feel so fortunate to live in a town where the government sees the value of breathing new life into this property and where we are able to work together in this grant process," she said. "I look forward to sharing more about our vision as we move ahead in this process."