View from Glen Hill: AROD — Where to go from here

There has been much concern expressed about an age-restricted-housing overlay district (AROD) encompassing all of Ridgefield Road that opponents fear will change the character of that beautiful road.

An AROD permits relaxation of Wilton’s general two-acre residential zoning rule to allow more dwellings. An AROD also allows Wilton Planning and Zoning to impose conditions on development including, for example, on the number of units and their siting and creation of park-like buffer zones. Furthermore, as a “floating zone,” an AROD also gives P&Z the power to deny a request for age-restricted development altogether for any specific parcel within the AROD. By contrast, both two-acre zoning rules and Avalon-style affordable-housing-development rules that I discussed in my March 30th column offer little latitude for P&Z to impose conditions on developers, let alone to block development.

That column described how our town blocked the original modest development plans for what became Avalon’s Route 7 site; so the owner sold to Avalon. Avalon took advantage of the state law (sec. 8-30g) that encourages lower-income affordable housing by permitting developers who include long-term provision for a significant number of affordable-housing-unit set-asides (30%) to ignore most local zoning laws and site essentially anywhere. Avalon eventually won in the courts the right to proceed under that law with what has turned out commercially to be a very successful 100-unit rental property on those 10 acres. So past experience has taught us that blocking one form of development can lead to something much more dense.

As we struggle with town budgets, the Avalon-type affordable-housing consequences are worse by far in number of units. And they are worse not only for 183 Ridgefield Road’s neighbors but also for our town, including significant increases in the number of school-aged residents, resulting in higher education costs.

Wilton is presently in year two of a state-approved four-year moratorium on application of sec. 8-30g here, but that moratorium will not be renewable when it expires, as explained in my March 30th column. Under affordable-housing rules (or otherwise), a developer could potentially force the extension of a nearby town sewer line, at the developer’s own expense. Foreclosing other development alternatives, depending upon economic conditions, can push development in that high-density direction, and there are attractive-to-developers reasons to want to locate affordable housing here both generally (e.g., our great schools) and specifically at 183 (e.g., proximity to the train and town center).

My March 30th column advised that the better course for the best interests of Ridgefield Road as well as Wilton as a whole is to negotiate with the 183 developer for a reduced number of units. The 183 developer has since then come back with a concept reduced from 35 units to a 16-unit age-restricted development (similar in size to Wilton Hunt) on his 13.5 acres, including a park-like buffer between Ridgefield Road and the units.

Having the AROD clearly helps the developer in this process, but it also helps our town and the Ridgefield Road community by avoiding the possibility of a many-dozen-unit Avalon. In addition, it allows significantly greater P&Z scrutiny and control than under state affordable-housing rules that override most local zoning rules and permit an “Avalon result.”

One compromise would run the Ridgefield-Road AROD only up to Middlebrook Farms Road. That is likely the outer limit of developer-forced sewer extensions that could really enable future Avalons on Ridgefield Road. Considering an AROD recast in that way also reflects acknowledgement of Ridgefield-Road residents’ strong views on the subject while it also secures the key overall objective of protection against Avalon-style development on the most susceptible portion of a scenic and historic road the character of which all of us seek to preserve.

If the AROD is restricted to this small portion of Ridgefield Road, that should facilitate discussions to address what should be done at 183 itself. Indications are that the 183 developer’s recent filing with P&Z is timely under the AROD as it now is and that this filing will be considered under the present Ridgefield Road AROD no matter how that AROD may be changed hereafter. However, the filing does not delineate the project in any specific form. That will presumably be done, and P&Z will undoubtedly insist upon seeing those specific plans, before any approvals are considered.

There are many moving parts here but also, one senses, a real desire among the leadership of the various parties (the community group, land conservation folks, historic preservationists, and the developer) to talk, with the clear need for an authoritative facilitator — Lynne?