Commissioners look at revision of the town plan as a process

Housing, schools, taxes, economic development, growth, conservation, sustainability, sewers, roads, traffic, traffic, traffic — there’s a lot to think about in planning the town’s next decade.

Planning and Zoning Commission members sketched out something of an overview of community values and concerns, and how they’ll be incorporated into their planning process, at an initial meeting Tuesday, July 31, with Glenn Chalder of Planimeterics, the consultant leading the 10-year revision of the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development.

“The issue is: We’re changing, the world’s changing,” Chalder said. “How can we do it to get the best future for Ridgefield?”

The town plan, which the state requires be updated every 10 years, is broad, open-ended documents that combine information on the town’s current realities with a multifaceted vision for the direction of future changes.

“It’s always seemed to me, No matter what your argument, someone can find something in the plan to support their side of the argument,” said commission vice-chairman Joe Fossi. “It’s always been a shield and a sword.”

“Yes,” agreed Chalder, the consultant. “Of course we want to minimize traffic congestion — but we also want economic growth.”

The plan revision is budgeted at $46,000 in this year’s 2017-18 capital spending plan, and a similar cost is anticipated next year to complete the two-year process.

Affordable housing advocate Dave Goldenberg attended the meeting, and turned in a letter pushing for an open plan revision process.

“As Ridgefield continues to feel the pressure of growth and development, it gives us a chance to create a clear vision of Ridgefield’s future — and a map to get there,” Goldenberg said. “Whose vision should it be? Clearly, that of the citizens of Ridgefield.”

He suggested the commission take advantage of a state statute allowing the creation of advisory committee that would gather information, possibly conduct hearings, and help guide the town plan’s revision.

When it’s done, he suggested “a plan implementation committee should be appointed to pursue the vision laid out in the plan in the coming years, and to recommend amendments to the plan (which are permitted by law) as necessary.

“Let’s not shortchange the process — and by extension the town and our future,” Goldenberg wrote. “Let’s move forward in a deliberate way to build not just a plan but a true vision of the future.”

Fossi, running the meeting in the absence of chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti, said the commission would set aside time to discuss Goldenberg’s suggestions when it returns from August recess in the fall.

“We’re not going to ignore your letter,” he said. “We’re going to figure out a way to make sure you have your say.”

Fossi told Chalder this principle should guide the planning process. “My word would be inclusion,” he said. “I’d like everybody who has a stake to have a say.”

Chalder had made a point similar to one Goldenberg raised.

“Some communities have established ‘plan implementation committees’ that push for implementation of plan’s recommendations and progress toward goals,” he said.

“They become like cheerleaders.”

Chalder noted that the plan — important as it is — shouldn’t be regarded as constraining.

“For the commission, the Plan of Conservation and Development is an advisory document — it doesn’t have force of law,” he said.

Listening sessions

The consultant outlined a two-year progression to a revised plan, with four major “research/strategy themes” — conservation, sustainability, development and infrastructure.

Chalder’s process is built around a series of “listening sessions” to get the community’s views on where the town should be going.

“The plan becomes a collaborative effort,” Chalder said. “The commission makes final decisions, but you make it based on input.”

Early on  — this fall and early winter — it will include “stakeholder interviews,” a “public scoping workshop,” and an online survey.

In 2019 the process continues with opinions from town board and commission members and department heads, and a telephone survey, and a community meeting or meetings.

When the plan is nearly complete, a formal public hearing is planned for March 2020, before adoption by a vote of the commission that spring.

Commissioners wondered about the telephone survey.

Chalder said it would involve 400 randomly selected households, There would be three attempts to contact each selected household, but “after the third time they move on to others.”

The random phone survey is important because other methods, like online surveys people can access, allow the people taking the survey to “self-select” — making results more likely to reflect interest groups rather than the general populace.

“It’s actually the random selection that give us the confidence,” Chalder said. “...The random selection gets you a cross-section of the community.”

He added, “We don’t make public policy on a 49%-51% split.”

On stakeholder interviews, too, he advocated including a wide range of people.

“Perhaps an attorney who’s been before you and chastised you,” Chalder said. “…There’s some real insight that can be provided by talking to bunch of different people.”

Commissioner Tim Dunphy felt the process should go beyond local opinions, and be built on a formidable base facts and statistical information.

“Raw data, as far as trends” Dunphy said. “What are people doing? How they’re shopping? How much they’re driving…

“What is actually happening is what I see planners miss the boat on all the time.”

Economics, traffic

What, Chalder asked commissioners, are the major issues facing the town?

George Hanlon pointed to the economy, which he said had fooled planners in the 2010 revision.

“Our economics changes so much after the plan was written. We were completely undone,” Hanlon said. “We didn’t have the resources to do what we wanted to do in places like Branchville.”

He added, “The world’s a completely different place in 10 years.”

“The economy has changed quite dramatically,” said Chalder. “And the state’s fiscal condition has changed quite dramatically in 10 years...

“Jobs, goods and services, tax base,” Chalder said, “...the idea of residential development used to scare people — they thought every house had two school-age kids.

“Of those three — jobs, goods and services, tax base — what’s Ridgefield’s focus?”

“I wouldn’t say jobs,” said Hanlon. “People commute to jobs.”

“I think it’s tax base,” said Fossi. “I think to have good housing values, you need good schools.”

“I agree with that,” said Commissioner John Katz.

Commissioner Charles Robbins pointed to one issue he hears a lot about.

“Traffic congestion, the diversion of traffic to secondary roads, I believe is very important to this community.,” he said.

“Traffic is always going to be a problem,” said Katz.

People drive their own cars everywhere, and it’s a habit unlikely to change, Katz said, admitting he’s part of the problem. “I drive that truck to town three or four times a day — three of which are unnecessary, and one of which I could have someone with me, but I don’t,” he said.

Hanlon envisioned it getting worse.

“What happens if tolls are introduced on 84?” he said.

“Everything’s a balance,” said Fossi. “Certainly good schools are important, Safety’s important… We might find traffic is a hot button for people. It’s one of the few things we might not be able to do much about.”

Chalder had described the availability of goods and services as an issue in some towns, but Fossi didn’t see that as a problem in Ridgefield

“I can’t think of a thing I could buy I can’t get to within 15 minutes,” he said.

“Ridgefield is known for its high quality of life,” Chalder agreed. “It’s a very attractive community — it’s known throughout the state.”

Arts, economics

Planning and Zoning Director Richard Baldelli noted the town’s growing arts scene.

“There’s a number of arts venues, it’s like they’re buildling on themselves.” he said.

“You see a lot more New York license plates on Main Street,” said Hanlon.

“Those types of things can expand the economy,” said Chalder.

“Economic development isn’t what we used to think of — it can be much broader,” Fossi agreed.

“We are a bit of destination —— especially as a ‘foodie’ town,” said Commissioner Mark Zeck.

With a good show at The Playhouse, Hanlon said, the town’s restaurants were filled on weeknights.

“I’ve heard people in other towns mention the playhouse,” said Chalder.

Robbins pointed to environmental values.

“Conservation and sustainability are of great importance to this town,” he said. “Where are we going to be, in terms of conservation?”

“We all want to be sure that resources in Ridgefield are protected,” said Chalder.

“I know we’re reaching out to the ‘citizenry’ — are we reaching out to the local development community?” asked Commissioner Bob Cascella.

The building industry should be included, Chalder agreed.

Housing, demographics

“There’s two developments — commercial development and residential development,” Cascella said. “And re-development,” he added.  “What are you seeing?”

“Changing age demographics,” replied Chalder, who does planning for many communities. “People are moving, they’re looking at smaller houses.”

Sometimes smaller houses aren’t available, due to historic building patterns — the plan can address that, he said: “What do we need in terms of housing mix?”

There’s “a growing interest in walkability and pedestrian friendly areas,” Chalder said, “ … centers and villages.”

Hanlon said, “The fear of affordable housing seems to have left the town. People have accepted it, and seem to appreciate it. Five or six years ago, everyone was pulling their hair out.”

Asked what was behind the change, Hanlon said when affordable projects were built people found they’re not as objectionable as they’d imagined: “Geez, that looks nice,” he said.

“When you friends and neighbors start to move into those places, it gets more acceptable.” Cascella said.

“I work in Fairfield County,“ said Cascella, who’s in real estate. “More commercial properties are being re-developed into residential properties than I’ve ever seen.”

Chalder said the residential market is in flux, affected by the changes in the economy and demographics.

”People cashing out and renting — it’s crazy what’s going on,” he said.

Chalder suggested looking at the hanging demographics’ fiscal implications as a town developed for school families ages into a town of mostly older folks.

“Sixty to seventy percent of the budget goes to schools,” he said. “...If 70% of your budget is going to 20% of your population, that’s an issue.”

Branchville, sewers

Commissioners raised Branchville as an example of planning’s limits.

“Branchville was a tough sale when the market was good,” Cascella said.

“It’s in a flood plain and we have no sewers,” added Fossi.

“Expanding sewer is at odds with the idea of controlling traffic,” said Katz. “More sewerage is more population — it maybe good, it may be bad.”

Chalder said sewer demands were an example of how changing technology could influence the relevance of planning judgements as time passes.

“Water-saving toilets have changed the whole nature of how you plan a sewer plant, but now there’s concern about nitrogen,” he said.

To inform the public on the plan’s progress, Chalder said, many towns did regular updates online. Others wait.

“Some towns don’t want it online until after commission has discussed it.” he said.

“A plan can be a messy process.”

He proposed sending periodic updates to the planning office, to be put online a week before each monthly meeting at which the plan will be discussed — generally the first Tuesday of each month.

Commissioners liked the open approach.

“I completely agree,” said Fossi.

“I completely agree,” echoed Robbins.

“Absolutely,” agreed Katz.

Chalder also suggested that, once the plan is done, the commission consider regularly revisiting and updating it.

“You could be updating every year along the way,” Chalder said.

“A town plan has a half-life of two to three years. It almost becomes moribund after two or three years. … If you do a little refreshing along the way, you refresh the half-life and it becomes a living, breathing document.”