Ridgefield Voters United: New group aims to protect neighborhoods from commercial development

With the Planning and Zoning Commission and Inland Wetlands Board separating in eight months, Ridgefield will have a new group of elected officials deciding on applications that impact development in town.
And when that split happens, Ridgefield Voters United (RVU) will be ready to offer candidates to voters.
The new citizens group, which formed in February, aims to protect residential property values and proper placement of commercial development.
“Residential property makes up roughly 84% of the town’s tax base,” said Lori Mazzola, the RVU’s spokseperson. “Property values are down pretty much across the board in recent years. Even significant commercial development won’t build the town’s tax base. Only by improving the values of our residential properties and making thoughtful and deliberate planning decisions can we improve the town’s finances.”
Mazzola said that the group’s motivation stemmed from a perceived conflict of interest on the current zoning commission and wetlands board, which are made up of the same nine members.
“There’s a rising unease about the presence of board members with special or personal interests that may influence their ability to make the best and unbiased decisions for the town,” she said. “The candidates that we intend to support will not have any special interests to promote or protect.”
Mazzola said the group is currently not registered as a political action committee as no funding is currently being solicited or used.
“In the future, we may share fund-raising links for candidates that we intend to support and promote,” she said.
Voters speak loudest
Perhaps what triggered RVU’s inception the most was the 2018 referendum decision to split the Inland Wetlands Board (IWB) from Planning and Zoning Commission (PZC) in the upcoming municipal election in November.
Mazzola said that members of RVU helped promote the vote but that until the vote “there was no significant action to be taken.”
“The group’s formation was the culmination of multiple events,” she added. “Our reaction to the results of the vote to split IWB and P&Z ... was to recognize the desire of Ridgefield residents to have a strongly qualified and credentialed IWB body. We saw the vote as an indication that Ridgefield voters want a qualified IWB, regardless of political affiliation.”
Ridgefield Voters United will recommend and promote particular candidates, Mazzola said, but ultimately voters will make the decision.
“Our main goal is to aid them in that process by providing information about the candidates and their qualifications,” she said.
One of a few
Catherine Neligan, who opposed the proposed Mountainside drug rehabilitation center on Old West Mountain Road and the proposed Ridgefield Winter Club on Peaceable Street, said Ridgefield Voters United will identify both wetlands candidates and zoning officials.
“We ... support planning and zoning commissioners who will value careful placement of commercial development in the appropriate zones and locations, a proper balance of housing and retail for economically flourishing business districts, and the retention of Ridgefield aesthetics and charm,” she said. “An effective Plan of Conservation and Development requires both boards to be robust, highly qualified, and without special interests to execute their respective objectives symbiotically and successfully.”
Mazzola pointed out that Ridgefield was one of seven towns in Connecticut that had a combined PZC and IWB and that the current model is “ineffective.”
“P&Z members by and large lack the qualifications required to manage a proper IWB hearing,” she said.
“96% of the state’s municipalities have separate boards,” she added.
Specific applications
Mazzola eschewed talking about specific applications, like the winter club that withdrew its special permit request in December following eight public hearing in front of the zoning commission.
The club received approval from the wetlands board in January for site work but without special permit cannot operate on the six-acre, residential-zoned property.
“Rather than focusing on past instances concerning IWB decisions, we are focusing on the future,” she said. “Years ago, naturally Ridgefield had much more raw acreage. Over time, as it’s become more densely populated and developed, the need to make proper and ‘best practice’ decisions with what remains, becomes more and more critical.
“One could argue that the individuals on an effective P&Z aren’t necessarily equally effective on an Inland Wetlands Board,” she added. “It’s our belief that members of these boards would naturally have different qualifications, perspectives and goals.”