After several months of rising tension over the Arbor Haven development proposal for the Country Club of Woodbridge property, First Selectman Beth Heller last week suggested — and her fellow board members agreed — to push “pause” and to hire a town planner in the hopes that an independent planning consultant might guide them through the issues facing the town.
The Arbor Haven proposal would build approximately 145 homes of different sizes on the bulk of the Country Club of Woodbridge property, along with bike paths and a number of public recreational amenities, such as pool and playground. About 20% of the units would be income restricted. The developer offers to purchase the property from the town for $9 million and deed back 50 acres primarily between Woodfield Road and the Route 15 highway.
Tied in with the question of what to do with the Country Club property are issues such as a stagnant Grand List, the need for housing opportunities, the preservation of open space, recreational opportunities and more.
Several other proposals have surfaced since then – one from New England Brewing Co. has been withdrawn; a residents’ petition to post a Request for Proposal (RFP) for the old clubhouse is on hold while the Selectmen are waiting for a report from the Housing Opportunity Committee.
Most recently, the Woodbridge Land Trust and the Park Association, represented by Chris Dickerson and Bryan Pines, offered to pay $250,000 in return for a conservation easement on 140 acres of the property, carving out the clubhouse and surrounding acreage for possible commercial use.
“All Woodbridge residents want this property kept as open space,” Dickerson told the selectmen at their December 8 regular meeting. Their proposal allows to maintain town ownership of the land, provide money to offset the cost of the property and leaves the clubhouse available for use as a banquet facility, thereby creating the potential for tax revenue.
Pines’ comments at the selectmen’s meeting touched on the historic significance of the property, where 18th century Roger Sherman’s Clover Hill Farm was said to be located. Sherman, a mayor of New Haven, was the only person to sign all four founding documents, the Continental Association, the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
“We request you bring our proposal to the taxpayers for a vote,” said Dickerson. “I feel very strongly the divisiveness and contentiousness will disappear.”
Heller pointed out that there is no consensus on what the best plan is for the property. The proposed conservation easement would tie up 140 acres with access to sewer and water, she said, adding that $250,000 is less than one year’s debt payment. The town has about ten years left on the debt, and spends about $400,000 annually on it.
Heller emphasized that she is not looking to hire a land consultant rather than a planning consultant, who could help the town not only come to a consensus on how best to use the land of the Country Club, but also achieve a business model for the commercial district, and finally, come up with a recommendation to the selectmen that will show a way forward.
“I believe it’s in the best interest of the town to hold off…with any proposal at this time,” she said. She hopes that the right person will assist the Board of Selectmen to develop a comprehensive plan that residents can support. “This is a proactive way for us to determine the future for our town.”
Selectman David Lober, who has spoken out against the Arbor Haven proposal, seemed skeptical. “I have no objection to hiring a consultant,” he said, adding that he and the Republican ticket have been asking for a consultant for a long time. However, he also cautioned that consultants generally “will give you the answer you hire him to give you,” he said. “Give him or her all criteria, he said, do not just come back with residential development.”
And while they agreed on the need for a planner, Lober and Heller soon clashed again over the question whether a housing development will create an income stream for the town.
Heller thought Arbor Haven presented a very good proposal, which satisfies many of the town’s concerns, she said — namely revenue, diverse housing and significant open space.
But Lober, who rejects the notion that the town will see any profit from the development, given costs for services and schools, thinks the developer is using numbers that are not rooted in reality. “We have to stop promulgating this fiction that we will get money from this property,” he said. “The numbers just don’t work.”
“I believe what I believe and you believe what you believe, and Welcome to America,” retorted Heller.
“I work with facts,” Lober said.
Special meeting: The split on the Board of Selectmen was most palpable the week before, when Selectmen David Lober and David Vogel had called a special meeting of the board, which took place on November 30, specifically to discuss the Arbor Haven proposal.
This was the first — and last — in-person meeting in Town Hall, given new spikes in Covid infections. Neither the first selectman, nor selectmen Sheila McCreven or Paul Kuriakose attended. Of the Democratic ticket, only Selectman Joseph Crisco was present. He did not comment on the remarks made by his Republican colleagues, but he did say he respected their action.
McCreven said she couldn’t rearrange her schedule on short notice, as the meeting had been posted the day before Thanksgiving.
The meeting was recorded and posted on WGAT, but it is unclear whether minutes were taken; there are none on the town’s website.
Vogel spoke first and criticized the administration for pausing the requested RFP while advancing the Arbor Haven proposal.
Lober meanwhile quoted at length from a letter that members of the Conservation Commission were working on, expressing their wide-ranging concerns about the proposed development.
Heller said although the letter was directed at the Board of Selectmen, only Lober had seen it. He is the Board of Selectmen’s liaison to the Board of Conservation.
Heller’s subsequent suggestion to hit the pause button on all fronts seemed to respond to the criticism. “I believe it’s in the best interest of the town to hold off for now with a special town meeting for approval of any proposal at this time,” she said. “My hope is this will help make sense of all these ideas…and will assist the Board of Selectmen to develop a comprehensive plan that residents can support.”
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent
Selectmen Lober, Vogel and Crisco attend a special meeting called by the Republican minority to discuss the Arbor Haven proposal. This was the only in-person meeting of the board in the Town Hall meeting room before spiking infections caused the town to revert to virtual meetings. Selectmen Heller, McCreven and Kuriakose were not in attendance.