A 50-acre property in Ridgefield now has much more flexibility in the types of businesses allowed there.
The flexibility is the result of a unanimous approval by the Planning & Zoning Commission for a zone change for the commercial property located 901 Ethan Allen Highway (Route 7), also known as the Pond's Edge Professional Office Park.
Specifically, the commission approved Ridgefield Professional Office Complex LLC's application to divide the 50-acre property into four separate parcels.
Two of them will be rezoned from the current "CDD" (Corporate Development District) designation, which allows only office uses, to the town's "B-2" designation, which expands those uses to include "service type" businesses, such as, for example, banks, nail salons, hair dressers, printers, health clubs and other "non-retail" uses.
The larger of the two B-2 parcels is home to a light industrial facility, located on Route 7, that once housed operations for Silicon Valley Group, Perkin Elmer and before that Benrus. The facility consists of two buildings — the 20,000-square-foot "north building," which currently houses various medical offices (Pond’s Edge Medical Center), and the 65,000-square-foot "south building," which remains empty.
The other B-2 parcel, located off Route 35, is eight acres of vacant land which the applicant intends to develop at a later date.
The two open space parcels, totaling 18 acres, one of which includes a small pond, will be donated to the town in a deal which has already been approved by the Board of Selectmen and Conservation Commission.
As a condition for approval, the P&Z Commission is requiring the applicant to conduct water quality testing on the pond, the results of which will be presented to the Conservation Commission at a later date. The area where the light industrial facility is located is a former brownfield site which has been remediated over the years in stages.
The zone change was opposed by residents of the adjacent Regency of Ridgefield condominium complex, located at 638 Danbury Road, who feared that allowing the new uses could lead to an increase in traffic, among other concerns.
Dozens of residents of the complex had signed a petition that was submitted to the commission outlining their objections during the public hearing process. However, the commission rejected the petition because it did not meet a threshold put forth in the state's real estate laws requiring signatures from a minimum of 20% of the property owners located within a 500-foot buffer surrounding a property.
During a P&Z public hearing held Feb. 19, Arthur Levine, a resident of Regency of Ridgefield, said more than 60 percent of the complex's title holders had signed the petition, and asked if more time could be given to collect more signatures. P&Z Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti, however, said even if 100 percent of the complex's unit owners signed the petition, it still would not meet the 20 percent requirement, "It would only be about 7 percent."
During the same public hearing, Mark E. Kornhaas, traffic engineer for Brookfield-based Artel Engineering, testified that allowing service-related businesses on the property would have little to no impact on traffic volume, compared to the current uses, although traffic patterns could change.
He said when the property owners bring in additional tenants under new uses, they would come back before the commission to request a special permit, at which time traffic generated by the proposed new use would be discussed.
Robert Jewell, attorney for the applicant, said when the owners first bought the property in 2005 "it was an abandoned factory" which had been empty for about 10 years.
"It was an eyesore — surrounded by a field of dilapidated and rotting [debris]…" he said, adding that the owners' overall goal is to improve the property (however there is no new construction planned as of present).
Jewell said the property was rezoned to "CMDD," allowing medical uses, in 2004 — however in 2006 it was changed back to CDD so as to not limit the uses to medical.
He said every time the property owners have brought in a new tenant, there have been conflicts with the zone designation, in terms of the uses proposed. As a result the owners had to apply for a special permit almost every time a new tenant came in. He said the goal in changing it to a B-2 zone is to give the owners more flexibility in terms of the types of tenants they can attract.
Dr. Richard Lipton, one of two managing partners of 901 Ethan Allen, said he has had a half dozen or more prospective tenants who have expressed interest in the property (i.e. the south building) over the years, but some of them simply had to walk away due to the constraints imposed by the zoning regulations.
He said initially his group wanted to find a new industrial tenant for the facility, but after a great deal of prospecting, as well as working with various state economic development agencies, it became apparent that "manufacturing is gone... and it's not coming back…"
When asked what types of businesses he hoped to attract, Lipton said, "We do have a large scale, very private storage opportunity on the site — and that's something that was simply not permitted under the CDD zone."
When pressed by property owners as to his motivation for giving away the two parcels to the town as open space, Dr. Lipton explained that it would serve as a tax write-off. He said he had nothing to gain in terms of development of the property by giving the two parcels to the town as open space.
Later, Mucchetti explained that if the applicant decided to keep the two parcels as open space, it would potentially be able to request greater density on the property, if zoned B-2 — however, because the parcels are being given to the town, the highest allowable density would remain essentially the same as it is under the CDD zone.
John Tartaglia, a unit owner in the Regency complex, argued that the application should be considered a four-way subdivision and not a "free cut" — and also asked that the commission impose "general architectural or zoning conditions, in a manner that preserves some type of appearance or look... to keep this area consistent with the downtown," as opposed to addressing architectural issues each time a new tenant (with a proposed new use) signs a lease.
"This way you're protecting me and my neighbors and the town... ," he said, adding that addressing architectural design in piecemeal fashion is the approach which led to the design issues that exist today. "Because we see what's there now... and it's not quite satisfactory…" he said.
Jewell, however, said it's not possible to impose design requirements on a zone change.
Later in the meeting Town Planner Betty Brosius explained that the application was handled as a zone change and not a subdivision because two of the four parcels will be designated as open space and given to the town. "Therefore," she said, "they are not buildable lots." That means in essence the property is only being divided once, which, under state regulations, counts as a "free cut."
Autuori said he was pleased to see "an open space element in the application," calling it a "balancing contribution."
"I'm glad to see that along with the change to B-2, there is also a significant amount of open space set aside," he said, adding that there is "tremendous potential for a significant improvement of the property," particularly since the building's owner is trying to attract "high value tenants... with low traffic impact..."
"This is the kind of thing we're looking for in other areas of town," Autuori said during the Feb. 19 meeting. "I see balance, I see no change in traffic, I see a more useable zone to both the applicant and the Town of Ridgefield, and I see open space set aside... I see a win here…"
There was also some discussion regarding access to the second, yet-to-be-developed B-2 zone from Route 35, with concerns raised about sight lines and traffic safety, however those concerns will be addressed by the commission when the applicant returns with specific plans for that parcel, as they are not germane to the request for a zone change.
The P&Z Commission approved the request for zone change with little discussion at its March 5 meeting.
According to a listing on LoopNet.com, the south building is an "R&D manufacturing facility with expansion availability."
"The building has 4,000 amp service, city water, sewer and a vacant shell," the listing states. "The current development plans call for replacing adjacent facade of the south building with a glass/aluminum panel exterior similar to that of the adjacent north building. The south building will be completely gutted to provide a vacant shell to accommodate tenant's needs."