Ridgefield Winter Club: Zoning battle begins tonight at East Ridge Middle School
Fixing a deteriorating commercial property versus protecting residentially-zoned neighborhoods.
The battle lines between the proposed Ridgefield Winter Club at 340 Peaceable Street and the Peaceable Neighbors Alliance have been drawn for more than a year.
Each side will make its case in front of the Planning and Zoning Commission at East Ridge Middle School’s auditorium Tuesday, Sept. 4.
“We expect there to be a pretty full room,” said Rebecca Mucchetti, chairwoman of the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z). “The applicant will give his presentation in its entirety and then they will answer peer review questions from the commission, followed by a public comment period.”
The hearing will start at 7:30 p.m. and close at 10:30 so that the school’s janitors can close the building by 11, per state regulations. Additional hearing sessions are planned.
“Everyone will get a chance to talk but it might not be on Tuesday night,” Mucchetti warned. “There’s no cutoff time for the applicant … We will explain the procedure at the beginning of the meeting so everyone understands our rules. … We’re hopeful that we will get to public comment.”
Mucchetti said that the town’s planning department has received more than 200 letters on the controversial special permit application that includes plans for an outdoor ice rink and a three-story clubhouse — totaling close to 18,000 square feet — on the the almost six-acre lot.
“I don’t know the breakdown [positive or negative] but it’s the most letters we’ve received since I’ve been here,” said Mucchetti, who joined the commission in 2001 and became its chair in 2004.
Given the interest in the proposed club, Mucchetti anticipates there may be four public hearing sessions. A second one has already been scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 25, at East Ridge Middle School.
“There’s a lot of public interest and we know everyone would like to speak on Tuesday night but there might not be enough time,” she said. “That’s why we’re already scheduling a continuance.”
As for when the third and fourth hearings will be held, Mucchetti did not want to speculate.
“It’s a very busy time of the year for schools, and we don’t know when we’ll be able to get the auditorium after the 25th,” she said. “We also don’t want to schedule a hearing one week or two weeks after the previous one because it’s hard to know exactly how much time the applicant will need between hearings to answer our questions.”
Al Maiorino of Public Strategy Group, the firm hired to handle public relations for the club, said Tuesday’s hearing would be a good opportunity for applicant Bud Brown to present his plans but also listen to feedback from the commission and residents.
“In the past, the club has just been a concept,” Maiorino explained. “Now, it’s a real application and we are eager to get the facts out there and hear from everyone.”
Maiorino said that while opponents of the private club have been active since the outdoor ice rink and clubhouse were first proposed in July 2017, there are “hundreds of supporters” for the Ridgefield Winter Club (RWC) and he expects people to speak in favor of the project once the hearing is opened for public comment.
“We encourage people to be vocal,” he said.
Echoing Mucchetti’s sentiment, Maiorino said he’s preparing for multiple hearings.
“Not everyone will get a chance to speak Tuesday night.”
Jeff Hansen, the spokesman for the Peaceable Neighbors Alliance (PNA), said he has warned people that Tuesday night’s hearing will be mostly presentations without much time for public comment.
“We have our own engineers and other experts in related fields that we will want to speak first when the hearing opens up to the public,” he said. “...There’s a good chance residents won’t speak until the second hearing.”
Hansen, who started giving an hour or two a night last summer toward opposing the project, said he estimates that he’s spent 20 to 25 hours a week over the last month fighting Brown’s application.
“I want to go to work and come home and spend time with my family like the rest of this town, but that’s what happens when your town has loose zoning regulations,” he said. “If I was a resident in another town — New Canaan, Darien, Wilton, I wouldn’t have to deal with this because they restrict for-profit businesses like this one from being developed in residentially-zoned land … Residents of Ridgefield are getting punished for living here.”
The effort hasn’t just been time consuming.
Hansen said the PNA has spent “tens of thousands of dollars” in its efforts against the club.
“It’s fortunate we’ve been able to raise that money but, at the same time, it’s quite a shame that we live in a town where we are forced to defend our homes and our way of life.”
Hansen said he met with Brown in August. He described the interaction as “cordial” but was dismayed when the developer threatened to build an affordable housing complex on the property if the ice rink application was rejected.
Brown, who submitted the special permit application under a holding company named Rising Ridge Inc., has the property under contract but does not own it.
“It was a veiled threat and I questioned him on it,” Hansen said. “...There was not much progress made from the meeting.”
Maiorino emphasized that Brown’s only intention for the property — the former Pinchbeck nursery, most recently known as Peaceable Farm before it closed in 2013 — is to build the RWC, and he is not planning an affordable housing complex.
“That’s just speculation, mudslinging,” Maiorino said of affordable housing rumors.
“The winter club is what Bud wants,” he added. “There’s no other plan.”
Melissa Webdale, owner of the Winter Garden Ice Arena off Prospect Ridge, said she operates her public rink under a special permit but is not allowed to have a restaurant, bar or clothing shop like Brown is seeking to operate in his clubhouse.
She commented on the PNA’s online petition fearing what Brown’s rink would do to her own.
“There are simply not enough people utilizing the rink to spread it out over two rinks,” she wrote. “If the community as a whole wishes to see recreational skating and ice hockey continue to be available in Ridgefield they will not vote in favor of the winter club.”
She added that under the special permit the Winter Garden could also build an outdoor rink but that it would not make financial sense.
“We just do not have population to justify the loan that we would have to take out to accomplish this,” she wrote. “We would be open to partnering with someone to make this a reality if the residents wanted it.”
Fearing that the new club would diminish and threaten her business, Webdale said she “would hate to be forced to change our four acres over to condos or affordable housing.”
“We feel the existing rink is a great selling point for families moving into Ridgefield and we would hate to see that go away,” she said.
A mix of yellow “No ice rink on Peaceable!” signs and brown “Protect residential zoning” signs have proliferated around town, and may be seen in neighborhoods far from the proposed ice skating facility on the New York line. Over the month of August, some signs have been reported missing — or have been destroyed, according to Hansen.
Ten signs were snatched off Remington Road on Aug. 21 and thrown into the woods near Peaceable Hill Road. A day later on Aug. 22, somebody drove over a sign on the front lawn of a Canterbury Lane home.
“Unfortunately, it appears we’re dealing with thugs now,” Hansen said. “... It would be disappointing to find out that our fellow residents are something to be feared.”
Hansen reported to The Press Monday, Aug. 27, that he was still getting two to four emails per day of people having signs stolen.
“The other day someone said they saw a male in his 50s (balding with dirty blonde hair) get out of his car on Route 35 near West Lane Deli, pull signs out of the ground and throw them in the bushes,” he said.
Another resident reported seeing a young girl stealing signs near Casagmo on Main Street Sunday, Aug. 26, around 10:40 p.m.
Major Steven Brown, the police department’s acting chief, said there were no leads on any of the incidents.
Police were also mum on exactly where signs had been snatched but Hansen indicated several had been taken near the intersection of Golf Lane and West Lane Friday, Aug. 24.
“There’s a house on West Lane that has had to get new signs three times already,” Hansen said. “Keeping track of lost signs has become a job within itself.”
Other roads where signs have been stolen include: Old South Salem Road, Catoonah Street, Peaceable Street, Ridgebury Road, George Washington Highway, Mimosa Circle and Tackora Trail.
Maiorino said two weeks ago that he didn't condone signs being stolen or destroyed.
“While we all value productive discourse, it’s never appropriate to touch or tamper with any signage on private property,” he said after the first signs were reported stolen. “We don’t do it, and neither should anybody else.”
Signs haven’t been the only form of protest.
While First Selectman Rudy Marconi said this week he hasn’t received any letters from residents for or against the proposed club, the PNA and other community members have been vocal in writing letters to The Press — at least two dozen have been submitted since the special permit application was filed with the town on July 20.
In addition, the alliance’s online petition had collected 1,388 signatures and 335 comments as of press time Wednesday.
Most petitioners believe the project should be moved to a different location, away from the residentially-zoned Peaceable Street neighborhood that lies on the New York border.
One resident went as far to say that the RWC would “ruin the very essence of our town.”
“It pains me that this situation has escalated to this point,” she wrote.
Some suggested Brown try to build it on Route 7.
“It’s a location issue,” Hansen admitted. “He might not be able to find another spot in town with that much acreage for this and I understand that but it might just mean he needs to find another town with that much space. But after talking to him, he’s not thinking in that direction at all…
“They’ve sunk a lot of money into this and they’re going to dig their heels in. I didn’t get the impression they’ll ever pull out. But we’re hopeful P&Z recognizes that the size of the project will be detrimental to the neighborhood and not grant the special permit.”