After years of wrangling, the Board of Selectmen, in a special meeting on Tuesday, September 24, voted unanimously to bring a development proposal for a part of the Country Club of Woodbridge to the voters. The proposal is to sell about 60 acres along Woodfield Road for the construction of up to 120 age-restricted town homes for the price of $5.4 million.
According to the charter, residents get to vote on any sale or purchase of public land. The vote can be by voice vote — which was done in 2009, when the town decided to purchase the 153-acre property — or by referendum at the ballot box. If approved, this would be the first such development in Woodbridge, and would require a zone change for the property.
The 60 acres constitute more than a third of the whole property. The remaining 90+ acres would remain public property and could be turned into a public park. The first selectman has called a group of staffers to brainstorm about potential uses for the open space. They include sledding and ice skating (with parking), picnic and fishing, walking and bike paths, six-hole frisbee golf, and, up on top of the hill, a flag pole with a veterans’ memorial and benches. A draft report can be found on the town’s website,
The developer, who brought the proposal for an active adult community to the town is Woodbridge resident Brian St. Pierre and his company, Insite Development Group. He is working in conjunction with Wernert Construction Management, a family-owned company of Cos Cob. St. Pierre introduced his new partners, company founder Bruce Wernert, his son Max and son-in-law Evan Burchell, at the September regular meeting of the board.
In her opening remarks to the September 24 special meeting, Heller said the town pays close to a half million dollars every year to repay the debt left from the purchase of the property. “In these tight financial times that’s money that could be used elsewhere,” she said.
By selling a portion of the former golf club, which has been out of operation for the past three years, the town can not only reduce its debt, but also grow its Grand List and take in additional tax revenue from the new homes. Once built out, the project could generate some $1.5 million in property taxes. “That’s real money that could be used to reduce our mill rate and bring relief to taxpayers,” she said.
The vote taken by the board on September 24 was limited to whether to move the project to a referendum. “We are not voting to approve or not approve this project,” Heller emphasized. She challenged her fellow selectmen to take a stand and let the voters decide. “Abstaining is appropriate whenever you have an interest in the outcome that directly affects you personally, or monetarily,” she said. “By failing to vote yay or nay, you allow others to make the decision.”
Selectman Sandy Stein agreed. “We are all elected officials,” she said. “It’s important to take a stand.” Stein, Joe Crisco and Mica Cardozo voted in favor of the motion. Selectman Joe Dey also voted for moving the project forwarded. He added that the reason he had abstained at a previous vote was on procedural grounds, not the nature of the project. Dwight Rowland’s vote was ambivalent. He said he had asked Wernert for references and did not get a complete list; but Selectman Cardozo said they did receive some references, including from the first selectman of Greenwich, and they were all favorable.
Rowland also wanted to see a list of projects the company had worked on, in particular with regard to cluster housing projects, with a dollar value attached. “I didn’t get that,” he said. After some hesitation, Rowland did vote for the motion.
Rowland, whose professional background is in construction, had many detailed questions for the developer and his builder, when they presented the project at the regular September board meeting. Rowland questioned them on their current workload and whether that might affect this project (answer, “we will stop bidding if we are on overload”); how many people they have working for them (30, 35 people, most of whom have been with the company for more than 20 years); will the houses have sprinklers (will depend on building code); will the construction require blasting, and if yes, how do you handle that with the neighbors (blasting permits are handled by the fire marshal).
St. Pierre and Bruce Wernert said their intention was “to keep this [development] as low profile as we can.” St. Pierre said the layout of the development is such to keep the majority of mature trees on and surrounding the old golf course, in particular the existing tree line along the first hole. The layout was done so as to “not make the land fit the project, but the project fit the land,” he said.
A plan with a proposed layout as well as suggested blueprints also are available on the town’s website, https://www.woodbridgect.org/DocumentCenter/View/2579/Insite-Presentation-to-BOS-September-11-2019. The proposed development includes a clubhouse, tennis/pickleball courts and a pool for the residents of “Wood Valley Estates.” St. Pierre also agreed to demolish the existing clubhouse, renovate the existing outdoor pool for public use and put up a pool house and snack bar.
In responding to selectmen’s questions, the developers said the first thing to go in would be the roads, followed by some ten model homes. St Pierre expects construction of homes to start at the highest elevation, along the ridge. After that, it’s “build them as they go,” he said. The main entrance to the new development would be on Woodfield Road.
The selectmen’s vote may have been an important hurdle for the project to go forward, but there are many more to come, first and foremost the referendum itself. If the voters approve the sale, the developers will have to get the necessary permits from a number of town and state offices. The sale will be contingent upon these approvals, including a traffic study.
The sale will be with a deed restriction, said Town Counsel Gerald Weiner. If the developer sells the property to a third party, the town will have the right of first refusal. “It cannot be used for anything but 120 age-restricted units,” he said.
The country club currently is located in a residential zone, with the regular minimum acreage of just under 1.5 acre per lot. (Residential A, per the town’s zoning regs, require 65,000 square feet of buildable land, according to land use analyst Kris Sullivan.) Opponents of this and similar proposals have often expressed concern that by allowing cluster housing — building homes closer together to allow for more contiguous open space — might open up the town to similar developments in other locations.
Town Counsel Gerald Weiner, after consulting with land-use attorneys, has argued that the zone change could be so restrictive, it would only apply to this parcel.
Following the September 24 vote, First Selectman Beth Heller said the next step will be for the Board of Selectmen to set a date for a special town meeting, where residents can get their questions answered; and selectmen need to set a date for the subsequent referendum. Provided the board votes on these dates at its October 9 meeting, the referendum can take place sometime in November, she said.
In the meantime, the developer has agreed to visit with town commissions to present the project ahead of the vote. The schedule was not finalized at press time.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent