Last month this column discussed the First Selectman’s recognition the town should seek professional advice on options for the Roger Sherman Farm, aka the former Country Club. At that time the First Selectman explained that she wants to hire an expert on land use issues. That’s good, but we need to think more broadly. If we step back and look at the diverse issues facing Woodbridge, it is clear the town should hire a professional planner to take a wholistic look at where Woodbridge is today and where it could be tomorrow. Our town needs to make decisions based on the best information available when it comes to making long-range plans.
What are the diverse issues? The town’s Housing Opportunity Study Committee has been charged with developing a housing plan as required by state law. The First Selectman created the Ad Hoc 2030 Task Force a couple of years ago, primarily to look at optimizing our small business district. The Woodbridge Board of Education is looking at Beecher Road School’s projected enrollment and potential capital needs. And overlying all of these activities are the sweeping residential zoning changes which the Town Plan and Zoning Commission (TPZ) adopted last year. Meanwhile, existing Boards and Commissions continue to carry out their responsibilities. These diverse issues and activities intersect and all of them involve the use of land within our town limits.
Right or wrong, the TPZ’s new zoning rules have already dramatically changed how Woodbridge may be developed going forward. The new rules allow much denser housing development, including multi-family housing and accessory apartments on existing properties. Shouldn’t we find out what the new rules portend for future housing before promoting housing on the Roger Sherman Farm? Significantly, the pending housing proposal for the Roger Sherman Farm is meeting resistance from the Conservation Commission and Commission on the Use of Publicly Owned Property (CUPOP). While their concerns vary, what’s common is a lack of support for development of this property. Good, because focusing on this single piece of town property as the cure-all for our financial and affordable housing challenges is a myopic mistake. Now is the time to engage a town planner to look at the options for the Farm in the context of our town as a whole. To be clear, this is not a consultant who typically assesses a deal on the table, but a planner who identifies and assesses options.
As a first and necessary step, the professional planner would prepare a Build Out analysis. In short, a Build Out is an objective assessment of what the maximum development potential for each piece of property – publicly or privately owned – could be. New state statutes and the TPZ’s new regulations dramatically change the potential build out of our town, making the preparation of this Build Out analysis imperative. If done well, the analysis would evaluate how existing housing stock may change over time as well as what development of all land could look like. The planner wouldn’t be making recommendations for future development but rather identifying what may evolve given current law. Without such information we are “flying blind” when it comes to making decisions in a potential referendum for any parcel – Roger Sherman Farm today or large Property X tomorrow.
Regional Plan Association and the State Department of Housing issued a guidebook on how to create a housing plan in the context of the new state mandates. That guidebook states that “understanding housing needs is one piece of the puzzle in planning for affordable housing. Another important piece is understanding how your town currently uses its land and what your zoning says about what types of housing can be built where.” It goes on to say, “The purpose of this review is to understand both how land in your town is used today and how it may be used in the future under your existing zoning regulations.” In other words, we need that Build Out analysis.
We cannot be single-minded in looking at affordable housing, Beecher’s future needs, or the town’s long- term finances. We have to look at these intersecting and potentially competing interests in an integrated manner, which starts with knowing what our new zoning regulations and state laws allow. The point is long term land use in Woodbridge is at the heart of all of these issues, so we better make the most informed, balanced decisions possible, as residents for the next many decades will have to live with them. What kind of Woodbridge do we want to leave to the next generations? It is our turn to be equally responsible for the next generations. Let’s move forward with a spirit of cooperation and the common goal of smartly balancing our many pressures. Let’s do it right.