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Country Club:  Cash Cow or Open Space?

Country Club:  Cash Cow or Open Space?

Survey Results Mixed – Residents Like Small-Town Feel

Amity High School students (standing, from left) Evan Kindseth, Helen Lenski, Jeremy Gustafson and Mariana Tahiri, along with faculty member Rick Bourdeau, are presented with certificates of appreciation for their many hours of volunteer work on the public opinion survey for the town. Seated are Selectmen Joseph Crisco, David Lober, Teri Schatz, Joseph Dey, and First Selectman Beth Heller.  Selectmen Mica Cardozo joined the meeting later on.

Woodbridge residents overwhelmingly like living in a small town, they like their schools and see the value of open space.  At the same time, they dislike the tax rate.  Those were reactions to a recent survey sent out by the town to find out what people would prefer to do with the Country Club of Woodbridge property.  But beyond those likes/dislikes, the results are “all over the place,” according to survey coordinator and Amity teacher Rick Bourdeau.

The results showed a very even distribution of either “in favor of” or “against” responses to various land-use options for the 150-acre property between Johnson and Woodfield roads.  What the survey did not show was a clear majority of residents opposed to any development on the property; nor did it show a vast majority favoring open space.

Bourdeau and four Amity students — Evan Kindseth, Jeremy Gustafson, Mariana Tahiri and Helen Lenski — who participated in the tabulating and analyzing of the responses, presented their findings at the April 11 Board of Selectmen meeting, and again April 25 at a special meeting of the board.  They did the work on their own time, not as part of a classroom project, Bourdeau said.  Neither he nor the students received any money for it.  Instead, First Selectman Beth Heller presented them with a certificate of appreciation.

Country Club resultsThe questionnaire presented a variety of land use scenarios that they asked residents to rate on a scale from 10 (absolutely in favor) to 0 (absolutely opposed).  The Amity team bunched together the highest three scores as being in favor and the lowest three as being opposed, with the middle five scores being neutral.  Here are the questions and scores regarding the Country Club:

  1. Return to the previous arrangement where a private company operates golf while the town operates the pool and continues to pay off existing debt: 32% in favor – 36% opposed.
  2. Keep the entire parcel and dedicate it as open space/recreational space while the town operates the pool and continues to pay off existing debt. 31% in favor – 41% opposed.
  3. The town rehabilitates the clubhouse and reserves the building for future use by town departments (for community use). Preserve the remaining property as open space/recreational space/golf while the town operates the pool and continues to pay off existing debt.  28% in favor — 42% opposed.
  4. Sell a portion of the land for age-restricted, over-55 housing. Dedicate the remainder of the parcel as open space/recreational space/golf while the town operates the pool and pays off any existing debt.  39% in favor – 41% opposed.
  5. Sell the entire parcel for single-family homes with no age restriction and pay off any existing debt. 16% in favor — 65% opposed.
  6. Sell or lease the clubhouse building with or without some adjacent land for commercial use (as a recreational facility, banquet hall or other use). Preserve the remaining property as open space/recreational space/golf while the town operates the pool and pays off any existing debt.  26% in favor — 33% opposed.

The analysis found that the over-55 housing proposal with some open space and some recreational space seemed to have a slightly higher favorable rating than any of the other scenarios.  The one thing most people seem to agree on is that they don’t want the whole lot to be developed with single family homes.

The town sent out 3,234 surveys, one to each household in Woodbridge, said Amity student Evan Kindseth as part of his presentation; they received back 851 usable responses.  That number represents a 26.3% response rate, which in the market research industry is considered a good response rate, according to Bourdeau.  He said in addition they received 127 responses after the (extended) deadline of February 20.  Those responses were reviewed but not included in the final analysis.  Bourdeau assured the selectmen that these responses were in line with the official respondents and would not have changed the final analysis.  All of the responses were turned over to Town Hall and are available for people to look over.

In addition to the latecomers, they received 60 supplemental surveys, those of more than one respondents per household.  These were handled in the same manner as the latecomers, counted and reviewed, but not included in the final analysis.

The questionnaire encouraged respondents to write in their own preferences for the land.  Two-thirds of respondents did volunteer at least one idea and one-third offered at least one reason why.  Of those who responded, three-quarters said they would like at least some of the parcel to remain open space or for recreational purposes.  Half mentioned they want some kind of development.  As to the reason why, most responded to save money (pay off debt, reduce taxes, generate revenue) – 62% — or to preserve the nature of the town (22%).

Surprisingly the special meeting of the selectmen was not heavily attended, even though it was dedicated to hearing from the public.  Of the 20 or so in the audience, many were town officials.  A few critics of past development proposals did speak up.  Maria Kayne, a former selectman and former Conservation Commission chairman, suggested for the town to make a renewed effort to market the property to a golf operator.  “Golf is back,” she cited a New York Times headline.

Muffy German and Joyce Simpson said any higher-density development will necessitate a zoning change.  Their concern is that such change cannot be limited to this property and will destroy the rural character of the town.  Town Attorney Gerald T. Weiner did not agree with that statement.  He said the town got the opinions of two land-use lawyers who assured them that “spot zoning” was possible, even if they would not give a personal guarantee that such re-zoning would not set a precedent.

Allison Jensen was wondering why the town’s zoning commission would not allow the developer who had proposed 145 units of 55-and-over housing along Bradley Road to build it in phases.  Resident Robert Hill who had followed the discussion over the years said it is his understanding that the development consisted of housing units on one side of the road and a park-like setting with little shops on the other.  The concern was that the builder would build the housing units and not the more desirable part.  It is also questionable whether an unpredictable construction schedule would be fair to residents who live in that neighborhood.

“The survey did not give you the road map you were looking for,” Robert Hill said to the selectmen “but you have something to work with.”

Similarly, Dr. Philip Noto noted that the responses are “evenly diametrically opposed.”  He noted that people like open space but don’t like taxes.  “I don’t know how you’re going to deal with that,” he said.  Even so, he encouraged the selectmen to continue on their quest for a solution.  “It behooves you not to have ‘paralysis of analysis,’” he said.

Luckily the property is large and can satisfy a variety of goals, Selectman Mica Cardozo said during the discussion.

First Selectman Beth Heller in her closing remarks said she wants to follow up with all who have reached out to her regarding the Country Club property.  She said she will add it to the May 9 Board of Selectmen agenda.  “At that point, the board can decide what we want to do as our next steps,” she said.  “I am confident that together, we can work something out.”

The Board of Selectmen would be tasked with coming up with a proposal for the property, but any sale of land would have to be okayed by the voters, either in referendum or by voice vote.

By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent

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