Seeking to recoup on its $7 million investment, the Town of Ridgefield is moving forward with its plan to develop a 10-acre parcel on Sunset Lane — part of the 45-acre Schlumberger property which it acquired via referendum in 2011 — for multifamily housing.
On Tuesday the Planning & Zoning Commission considered a "pre-submission concept," presented by Glenn Chalder of consulting firm Planimetrics on behalf of the Town, calling for a zone change for the odd-shaped parcel from the current "B2" commercial designation to an "MFDD," or multifamily housing zone.
In January the Board of Selectmen hired Planimetrics to study the feasibility of developing the parcel for either residential or commercial uses.
Chalder said the ten acre parcel is better suited to residential use, mainly because Sunset Lane is already predominantly residential.
"I do think that with residential use of this parcel, given its location and proximity to the town center... it's possible that it would appeal to empty nesters and others, and would provide an advantage to the tax base," Chalder said.
Several commission members, however, questioned why the town is only considering housing for the property when town officials have for years acknowledged Ridgefield's lack of a robust commercial tax base.
"Here we go again — taking B2 land and converting it to residential," Commission Vice Chairman Patrick Walsh said. "I don't know why this town continuously knee jerks to residential. I don't know why we wouldn't keep this as a [commercial] parcel and try to develop it in the best interest of the town."
Ridgefield's B2 designation allows for certain types of service-oriented businesses — hair and nail salons, print shops, repair centers, etc. — as well as commercial office space and limited residential development (typically apartments over shops), but not "retail."
Walsh said keeping the parcel zoned as B2 would give the town the flexibility to pursue some housing for the property while at the same time "helping to firm up our commercial base."
"I don't understand why the first thing we always do is change it to residential," Walsh said, adding that the town did this with several other large parcels it had acquired in the past.
Commission member Peter Chipouras agreed with Walsh that the property should remain a B2 zone. "We don't need more residential — and I don't understand why the Town would want more residential in that area," he said.
Chalder, who assisted with the updating of the town's Plan of Conservation and Development in 2000 and 2010, as well as with the updating of some zoning regulations, explained that the ten acre parcel would be more "marketable" to potential developers if it was zoned MFDD.
"Given the uses that are permitted in the B2 zone, this would not be a good location, due to it's lack of visibility," he said, adding that "the market for office space and other things like that is not as robust as it has been, although it could come back in the future."
"Given the residential character of Sunset, it seemed a reasonable approach to look for housing diversity as a form of economic development for the downtown area," he said.
Meanwhile the town is exploring possible re-uses for the existing commercial building on the property, where for decades oil exploration support firm Schlumberger based its scientific research operations. The company, which relocated its research operations to Cambridge, Mass., is currently in the process of completing environmental remediation of the site, under the direction of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection — however the adjacent ten acre parcel has been tested and will not require any cleanup.
"The building is very specialized on the inside, in terms of how it is configured," Chalder said of the existing facility. "So the use of that building is being investigated, in terms of how it might be reconfigured in the future."
Town Planner Betty Brosius said when the town bought the property "there was some discussion of designating a small portion of it for residential."
"Sunset Lane is entirely residential with the exception of this B2 portion — so having this portion of the Schlumberger property made residential makes sense because you would have residential on both sides of the street," Brosius said. "If you leave it B2, there would have to be only certain B2 uses that would be appropriate considering the residential nature of the neighborhood."
Commission member Joe Fossi suggested that any housing built on the parcel be age restricted and asked whether the town had considered that idea. Chalder said it hadn't been discussed — he said for now, the town is only seeking the zone change in order to make the property more marketable.
Chalder presented an option to redesignate an adjacent four-acre parcel to the west from B2 to MFDD, as well. He said although topography and wetlands would preclude the four acre parcel from being developed, it could be designated as open space, which in turn would allow for denser development of the ten acre parcel, as per the town's zoning regulations.
Commission member Michael Autuori said he wanted to see open space included in the proposal, but not for the purpose of allowing for greater density. He said if the purpose of including the four acres of open space is to allow for denser development along Sunset, he would not support it.
Fossi, who supported leaving the parcel zoned B2, said the Town Plan recommends that the town aim for 30 percent open space, "and I think we are at 28.5 percent — we are very near our 30 percent goal." For this reason he said he was "not inclined to trade away any economic development land we have left for open space."
The commission members agreed to walk the property on March 17 in order to get a first-hand perspective on topography and existing development.