Winter Club hearing draws crowd
Water use and parking plans, threatened butterflies and light glare — if any of the 150 townspeople who turned out to the first hearing for a proposed private skating club on Peaceable Street came expecting an uproar, they likely left disappointed.
There was no time for comment from the public or a planned, peer-review session at the hearing, which ran just shy of three hours at East Ridge Middle School Sept. 4.
Two police cruisers were parked out front of the East Ridge auditorium as residents filed in, and by 7 p.m., about 30 minutes before the hearing began, the parking lot was mostly full.
Despite the contentious nature of the hearing, which has seen police reports filed over signs protesting the club stolen and vandalized, and heated exchanges on social media, there were only a handful of interjections throughout the night — two of which were members of the Planning and Zoning Commission raising questions.
At the beginning of the meeting, Planning and Zoning Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti said commissioner Bob Cascella would recuse himself from discussing or reviewing the application.
The only real backlash from the crowd came when attorney Bob Jewell, who represented applicant Bud Brown, suggested the old Pinchbeck Nursery currently on the site had been an “industrial” use.
Commissioner John Katz interrupted to note that Jewell had just said the proposed site was in a residential area.
“‘You said it’s an existing industrial use,” Katz said. “It’s never been industrial, and it’s never been zoned for industrial.”
Jewell attempted to backpedal by explaining that the fact that the nursery had once shipped and sold plants internationally labeled it an industrial use in his mind.
That drew indignant murmurs from the crowd. “Go back to Webster’s!” one audience member yelled, referring to an earlier comment Jewell made in which he used the dictionary to define “recreational club.”
“It is a blighted non-conforming, commercial use — is that better for you?” Jewell said.
The hearing ended before all of the experts presenting for the Ridgefield Winter Club wrapped up their presentations. Seven of the specialists who had worked on the application on behalf of Brown spoke.
Jeff Hansen, who leads the Peaceable Neighbors Alliance, a group opposed to the club, said he expected not to get a chance to speak.
“I presume they’ll try to present the club and try to put a lot of lipstick on it,” he told The Press shortly before the hearing began.
According to Phil Doyle, a principal with LADA Land Planners out of Simsbury, there was a reason for the sheer amount of data presented Tuesday night.
“Most of the applications that happen in this town or in other towns are controversial, and they end up one way or another in court. That’s unfortunate,” he said.
He and Peter Coffin, of Doyle Coffin Architecture, the firm who designed the layout of the club, both pointed out that the proposed rink and clubhouse would not be visible from the nearby houses, because the site sits on a raised plateau about 15 feet above the surrounding properties.
“You can’t see up over the plateau,” Doyle said.
Their goal, he added, was to “create the look of something that could fit, that would have a residential character.”
Coffin said the square footage of the clubhouse, the main building in the development, would have a square footage that is comparable to other estates in Ridgefield.
“I think the key part in terms of the architecture … contrary to popular belief is really to make this building fit in a residential neighborhood,” he said.
He downplayed the proposed bar and eating area on the second floor, which has drawn criticism from neighbors.
While there would be a kitchen to provide food, he said the space would be an “area to hang out.”
“It’s more about the social aspect of a winter club and less about a restaurant, per se,” Coffin added.
Birds and bees
Kate Throckmorton, a landscape architect from Norwalk, spoke about the environmental impact the development might have.
A portion of the northeast corner of the property does sit in a habitat for the endangered Appalachian Blue butterfly, but the “last time it was confirmed there was in 1997,” she said.
Joseph Canas of Tighe and Bond, an engineering firm based out of Shelton, said the club would use a little more than half the amount of water the site used to need as a nursery.
But Mucchetti interrupted to ask why the calculations on water included only the winter months of the year when both the clubhouse and the ice-rink plan to be open. She said they did not include the fall and spring months when the club plans to have the clubhouse alone open on a reduced schedule.
Canas said he would return with updated calculations.
The final half hour of the meeting was taken up by shortened presentations on the traffic plan for the site, and a plan to light the ice rink and parking facilities, both of which will be continue at a later hearing.
Mike Galante, the application’s traffic consultant, noted that there would be 92 parking spots available, and that club would re-route the properties driveway for improved sightlines entering and exiting the club. Those were calculated using the actual driving speed, not the posted limit, he noted.
The club could also avoid the worst of Friday traffic by changing its operating hours, he suggested.
“We have the opportunity to avoid the Friday afternoon commuter hours. by modifying our programming,” he said.
The hearing will continue on Sept. 25 with the lighting plan, noise, the plan’s visual impact, and longer presentation on traffic.
The commission also has dates set aside to hold additional hearings on Oct. 16, Nov. 13, and Dec. 11. Those hearings will all begin at 7 p.m., according to Mucchetti.