The Ridgefield Planning & Zoning Commission is divided on a proposal to rezone the business section on Route 7 near the Danbury town line to a special mixed-use zone, including limited retail and possibly affordable housing, as part of an overall effort to spur economic development and bolster the town's commercial tax base.
During Tuesday's P&Z meeting at the Town Hall Annex, Town Planner Betty Brosius, architect of the conceptual "Gateway Enhancement Zone," said if it is approved, the existing zone would in effect become a B2 retail zone "with an added component for small retail and a 20,000 square foot limitation per lot."
The goal of the proposed zone change, which has been in the works for several weeks following discussions with the town's Economic Development Commission, is to foster the creation of a new "gateway" to North Ridgefield on Route 7 which will attract new businesses and, as described by Brosius, allow a "small community" or "village" with shops, restaurants, offices and housing to spring up on the edge of town, where there is currently mostly office buildings.
As currently proposed all new development would have a 30 foot setback from the road, with all parking in the rear. In addition a 30-foot buffer of landscaping would be required between the storefronts and the road. In addition new sidewalks would be added to help create an improved aesthetic.
The commission has set a public hearing for Jan. 15 in order to get feedback from residents and business owners on the proposal, which only pertains to the proposed zone change and not any specific project.
"What we're trying to do is introduce is limited retail on Route 7," Brosius said, adding that the zone, which runs on both sides of Route 7 from Haviland Road north to the Danbury town line, also includes a section of commercial land at the corner of Route 35.
As currently proposed, retail stores under 1,500 square feet would not require a special permit to establish in the zone. Retail businesses would be allowed to have outdoor areas for displaying merchandise, Brosius said, but they would need to properly define the area when applying for a permit. Brosius said existing businesses with outdoor displays, such as R&R Pool, would be grandfathered under the zone change in the event their display areas are nonconforming.
Commission member Peter Chipouras however said he felt existing businesses with outdoor displays should not be grandfathered. He pointed out that part of the purpose of having the "gateway" on Route 7 is "to create aesthetics, to create nice scenery down the street — that's why you have the 30 foot setback with the landscaping." To allow existing businesses to keep their displays as they are would detract from that, he said. Brosius however said this would not be possible as those property owners have a legal right to continue using their properties as previously approved.
In terms of residential, the current draft of the proposed zone regulations would limit it to four units per lot.
Several of the commission members said they were uncomfortable with the idea of allowing residential housing in the proposed zone.
Chipouras said he was opposed to housing because of concerns about traffic safety in the area.
"Route 7 is a highway," he said, "and once you start having apartments above [the stores], you have families, and I can't imagine buses coming in and out of that shopping area to pick up kids [for school]."
"Route 7, to me, is not an area for a community," Chipouras added. "It draws businesses, and that's what it should be."
Commission member Michael Autuori said Route 7 was widened in that area a few years back in order to improve traffic flow to Danbury, "but now the town is adding traffic" by proposing the zone change, because it would lead to further development and intensification of use.
"By doing this we're basically choking [the road] — whether we have residential use or not," Autuori said. He pointed out that "people who live in that area of town can shop in Danbury, downtown Ridgefield and in Branchville, so, do we really want to have them served by what is effectively a more intense retail use in that area?"
Autuori said a possible unintended consequence of the zone change is that, should many successful new retail businesses pop up in the area, it would have the effect of drawing customers away from the downtown retail district.
"The intent is not to create a zone that competes with the downtown business district," Autuori said. "But it still might happen... "
"So, we're taking a road that is designed to ease traffic and choking it in order to create a retail zone that will detract from Main Street... I just don't see the point...," Autuori added.
Autuori said the real reason the zone change is being proposed "is that the [commercial] property owners [in the zone] are not satisfied with the zone — the one that they bought. It's not the rest of the town saying 'we want more retail.'"
P&Z Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti, who reportedly first introduced the idea of the zone change, however, disagreed with Autuori, saying that the Route 7 corridor had already been identified by the commission as an area needing improvement and had been "on the commission's agenda for a number of years."
Commission member John Katz said he too, was opposed to the idea of including housing in the zone — but that if it had to be included, "why not make it all affordable" so as to help the town along in terms of compliance with the state's affordable housing laws.
Commission member Joseph Fossi agreed, adding that he wanted the commission to find out from town counsel if it would be possible to mandate that all the housing in the zone be affordable, as opposed to the standard 30 percent minimum required by the state in order to qualify under 8-30g.
Autuori said that by allowing affordable housing in the zone, it could give the state the impression that Ridgefield "is trying to keep its affordable housing on the edges of the town, thus segregating it."
"One of the philosophies of affordable housing is to integrate it in with the community," Autuori said.
Mucchetti however pointed out that there are numerous affordable housing developments scattered throughout town, including several right in downtown.
Commission member Philip Mische said he supported the mixed use concept "with a portion of the housing being affordable." He estimated that the total possible number of residential dwellings in the zone could not be much more than 20 "which wouldn't have all that much of an impact."
Joy Louise Strand, chairwoman of the town's Economic Development Commission, who was in attendance said it's possible that some of the store owners will be interested in renting apartments or offices above their shops.
Not only was the commission divided on whether to include housing in the zone, some members were not entirely convinced the zone change was even necessary, or that it would have the desired effect.
"A lot of this is looking for trouble because, we may each have this vision of the ideal little enclave, but when an application comes in and it meets our standards, it becomes administrative whether we approve it or not," Katz said. "We can have all the aesthetic hopes in the world, but they could all go out the window...
Brosius pointed out that whatever change comes with the zone change, "it will be evolutionary — it will be slow — it won't be overnight."
"But if you picture the sidewalks and the landscaped areas in front of the buildings, you will get the atmosphere," she said. "If you have the regulation in place, you pave the way for the property owners to make those improvements over time..."
When Mucchetti asked the commissioners if they were comfortable enough with the proposed zone change to bring it to a public hearing, Mische said he wanted "more time to consider what is being proposed and what it might look like."
"There's enough dissension in the ranks...," Mische said. "I think in order to fashion an regulation that does what we want is going to take more time."
Other commission members, however, were eager to get the proposal out the the public for feedback.
"I think we should go ahead and start getting public's input," member George Hanlon said, adding that the commissioners could end up debating the proposal for weeks or months before finally arriving at a consensus. "After we get public input we can always sit down and change the language..."
Mucchetti pointed out that the commission can have as many public hearings as needed on the proposal because, unlike an application for development, it is not tied to any statutory deadlines.
Mische, however, said he was more concerned about the public's perception of a commission divided and how that might affect the proposal's chances for approval.
"Is anyone else as uncomfortable as I am with our complete lack of consensus on this?" he asked. "I mean, speaking with one voice was something I was hoping we could evolve toward. In terms of presenting this to the public, we're almost split, and I'm concerned with the way we're presenting this..."
Early in the meeting the commission took up John Katz's suggestion that the proposed name of the zone be changed from the original "Gateway Business Zone" to the "Gateway Enhancement Zone."
"If we look at the reasons why we're doing this — which is to 'allow flexibility in the mixed uses in this important commercial corridor and to establish design standards for the development and redevelopment to enhance the aesthetics of the gateway to Northern Ridgefield' — I think we should call this area the 'Gateway Enhancement Zone' as opposed to 'Gateway Business Zone,'" Katz said. "I think from a PR standpoint the concept of enhancement is beneficial."