Does Ridgefield need more hospitality? Zoning commission to examine ideas

The West Lane Inn, built in 1849, was originally the 19th-Century house of Harvey Bissell, the pharmacist. Owner Debbie Prieger has put the property on the market. Her family has owned it since 1973.
The West Lane Inn, built in 1849, was originally the 19th-Century house of Harvey Bissell, the pharmacist. Owner Debbie Prieger has put the property on the market. Her family has owned it since 1973.

The Elms was converted to condos. Stonehenge isn’t open — the property’s on the market. The Green Rocks Inn stopped doing business.

The West Lane Inn, however, is still offering lodging — 18 rooms, with continental breakfast — at its location next door to Bernard’s restaurant, near the fountain, a comfortable walk from the village and its shops.

The West Lane Inn has been in operation for 40 years now, and there are precursor inn businesses on the Bernard’s property — The Inn at Ridgefield, Toady’s Inn, Kane’s Inn — that go farther back to the 1930s.

But that’s about it for people seeking overnight accommodations in Ridgefield.

The Days Inn motel down on Route 7, just over the line in Redding, has 25 rooms. And a number of hotels operate in Danbury, seven or eight miles to the north.

Some “bed and breakfast” proposals have gone through the Planning and Zoning Commission’s special permit process, but none is currently operating.

So, the commission is considering whether it should try to address “hospitality” — or the lack of it — in town.

“Something we’d like to have a discussion about: How to incentivize hospitality,” chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti said to the commission’s June 26 planning discussion.

The overall outlook of the commission’s discussion was that the town could probably benefit from having more rooms available to people who want to visit Ridgefield.

“We have all these arts and performance venues in town,” Mucchetti said.

Economic report

The commission had benefit of a report to the town’s Economic and Community Development Commission by Cathy Savoca, who works in the hospitality industry and studied the issue as she and her husband looked into the possibility of opening a bed and breakfast.

“Hospitality is experience based,” Savoca’s report says, “and the broader the range of options that can be provided to guests the better. The challenge is to find the right mix for Ridgefield.”

The report, from December 2017, lists the West Lane Inn and Stonehenge as “inns and boutique hotels” in town. But it says of Stonehenge: “Minimal to no operation; For sale.”

The report lists two “bed and breakfasts” but none operating. The Green Rocks Inn “closed 11/30/17.” And Front Porch Farm, which Ms. Savoca got approval for after battling opposition from the Circle Drive neighborhood, was listed as “not yet in operation” at the time of the report.

“We did get approved, but there is no set plans to open Front Porch Farm at present,” Savoca said last week. “We applied for the special permit to have the option in the future should we choose to do so.”

Planning and Zoning Director Richard Baldelli confirmed last week that “currently there are no legal B&Bs in operation in Ridgefield.”

Savoca said market trends helped explain the lack of hospitality offerings.

“We lost the corporate business,” she said. “Your Monday-to-Thursday traffic went away.”

Savoca’s report listed eight “brand” hotels seven or eight miles from Ridgefield center — all in Danbury.

Mucchetti felt additional hospitality businesses might represent something Ridgefield could support, given all the attractions that draw people to town.

“They end up staying in Danbury,” she said. “Is there some way we might bring some of that opportunity back into town? The village seems like a great place to create some of that.”

Agreed need

The idea that Ridgefield could benefit from more hospitality venues in town has support outside the Planning and Zoning Commission.

“Yes, there is a need for an increase in hospitality and it is an area of focus … West Lane and Days Inn are the only two facilities operating,” said John Devine of the Economic and Community Development Commission (ECDC).

“The Playhouse draws a large number of visitors from around Connecticut and New York and much further,” he said. “Lounsbury House needs rooms for wedding guests.

“Big event weekends in town draw from outside of 06877 … Currently guests and even performers have to frequently stay in Danbury … The town would definitely benefit from another boutique hotel or an expansion of the West Lane Inn property.”

Savoca’s report said, “A recent fundraising letter from The Ridgefield Playhouse indicates that their 100,000 patrons shop, dine and stay in nearby hotels — but not in Ridgefield given very limited options. Those patrons add an additional $3.8 million to our local economy and their ability to stay in Ridgefield would increase that amount.”

Playhouse Executive Director Allison Stockel said this week that she thinks there’s a need for overnight rooms in town — and it would be beneficial to Ridgefield to address it.

“We get people from out of town that are looking for places to stay,” she said. “We do get people who come from as far north as Maine and as far south as North Carolina.”

Rooms are also needed for the artists who come to perform — depending on their contract, these may be booked by The Playhouse or left for the artists to book on their own.

“We do approximately 200 shows a year and many of them have touring parties — it’s not unusual for us to put up eight to 12 rooms for artists,” Stockel said.

“Throughout the season we probably use 200 rooms,” she said. “That’s the rooms we use, when we have to book it. Then there are the rooms the artists themselves book, that we don’t know about… If we’re doing over 200 rooms per season, I’d say there’s another 100 to 200 rooms that the artists do themselves.”

Stockel said artists performing at The Playhouse often end up booked into rooms in Danbury — sometimes because they want a full service hotel rather than a country inn.

“We deal with four or five hotels. I would say we use probably annually about 30 rooms per hotel, throughout the season — so, you know, that almost 150 rooms right there. Plus, we probably use about 30 rooms through the season at the West Lane Inn.”

So Stockel supports the town encouraging more “hospitality” businesses.

“I think it would be great to have a hotel for many reasons,” she said.

“I think there’s probably is a need for an additional something. I don’t know what you’d call it.” she said.

“I think it was nice when we had The Elms and we had the West Lane Inn. I think they complimented each other, because we have a small town feel.”

Selectmen Steve Zemo — who put a proposal for a hotel on Old Quarry Road before planning and zoning a few years ago, but ended up withdrawing it and changing the plan to apartments over storage facilities — agreed there is a need. But he described it as an area that would have to be carefully navigated, business-wise.

“I think the P&Z initiative makes a lot of sense,” Zemo told The Press.

“Some hotels or really B&B’s would find a market — but like a restaurant it would depend on price points, management, image, marketing etc.

“A larger or ‘flag’ property would face, in my opinion, different occupancy challenges. Only a feasibility study of a proposed product would really answer the question. Considerations would be number of rooms, amenities, star rating, etc.

“Keep in mind we are not on any major highway and don’t have any large corporate demands to fill the weekday business,” he said. “Weekends would experience a better demand.”

‘Boutique’ hotels?

Possible language the commission looked at — without taking any action — suggested adding “boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts” to the uses allowed the Central Business District.

“Currently we do not allow hotels in the CBD at all,” said Mucchetti.

In the town’s two other principal business zones, the B-1 and B-2 zones, the thought was to  eliminate the currently allowed “hotel, motel or inn” from the permitted uses, and substitute “boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts.”

A suggested definition for “boutique hotel” would be “a building used for the purpose of furnishing, for compensation, temporary lodging to the public, with or without meals, and having lodging accommodations” — with language specifying “limited to lodging of 30 days or less.”

There was some discussion as to whether the distinction of a “boutique” hotel had any real meaning — it seems to suggest something not too large.

The “boutique” language might also serve the goal — which commissioners seem to share — of not encouraging hotel or motel chain establishments.

“Nobody wants a ‘Days Inn’ in the middle of Ridgefield,” said Commissioner Joe Fossi.

Rooms over retail?

Another idea commissioners discussed was the possibility of B&Bs or boutique hotels as uses permitted in business districts on second and third floors — above ground floor shops.

“The rooms would be over retail,” said Commissioner Bob Cascella.

Baldelli told the commission he’d like to gather more information on the issue, and get back them.