The Board of Selectmen on October 21 cancelled the special Town Meeting and referendum it had scheduled just a week earlier regarding the sale of a portion of the Country Club of Woodbridge property to a developer. Instead, the board unanimously decided to work out a sales agreement with the developer before they turn to the public for a vote. “It is very important to me, and I believe the entire Board of Selectmen, to have a completed sales agreement prior to the referendum so residents are made aware of the terms of sale prior to voting,” First Selectman Beth Heller wrote in an announcement.
Throughout the month of October, the developers — architect Brian St. Pierre of Insite Development and Max and Bruce Wernert of Wernert Construction — have been presenting their proposal to several town boards and commissions on an informal basis. They look to purchase about 60 acres of the property to build up to 120 single family homes on small lots along two private roads. These homes would be restricted to people age 55 and over, and allow no children under the age of 18 to live there.
The sales price would be $5.4 million.
The presentations at the Board of Finance, the Police Commission, the Economic Development Commission, the Conservation Commission, the Commission on the Use of Publicly Owned Properties (CUPOP) and the Fire Commission, afforded the public a chance to ask questions, and, in some cases, comment in support of or against the proposal. The Recreation Commission heard the proposal on October 28 and the Human Services is the last presentation on November 4.
It became clear during the Q&A sessions that many of the details had not been worked out yet, which is not uncommon in these situations. Developers have to apply for town and state permits, including a traffic study, environmental impact study and more, a process that might require changes to the original proposal. Those studies are typically not done until the developer can be sure that he has a committed seller, much like a home inspection is not being done until the basic sales agreement is “under contract.”
Thus, the land survey of the property is yet to be done and the exact layout of the homes on the property to be determined. Yet St. Pierre assured the audience, that a selling point of this development is its location amid mature trees, which he is committed to keeping as much as possible. But details will be hashed out when the development is under consideration of the Inland-Wetland agency and the Zoning Commission. That is also the reason the developers did not present at those agencies at this time.
St. Pierre has set up a Facebook page and a website at https://www.woodvalleyestates.com/development with a Q&A tab. So far however, he had just posted the market research report on that site, in response to comments that at the upper $400,000 the units were priced way too high. The report finds that the average price of comparable properties in this area of the state is $504,000.
These were some take-aways from the conversations at committee meetings:
Police commissioners asked whether the developers were looking to establish a gated community – which St. Pierre left open. He said at this point he wasn’t planning to put a security gate at the entrance, but that he would be willing to add one if that was requested.
Traffic came up, with one neighbor talking about recent accidents at the intersection with Ansonia Road. Deputy Police Chief Ray Stuart said the state police will commission a study and determine what can be done to ensure safe travel conditions.
The developer was asked why he had given up on providing a golf course. St. Pierre said there are plenty of opportunities to play golf in the immediate vicinity. “There are six courses in a four-mile radius,” he said, adding “it was a business decision.”
At the Economic Development Commission meeting, St. Pierre said the price for the homes would start “in the high 400,000s”. Homes would range between 2,000 and 2,500 square feet on half-acre lots or smaller. He expects to start with putting in the roads, then add ten model homes, then build out in phases. In all, it could take 3-4 phases of about a year each to build out.
Paul Herrigan, a resident in the audience, questioned whether an asking price of $250 per square foot was appropriate for the Woodbridge market, where most houses sell much lower. St. Pierre responded saying the hottest market in the US is for those age 55 and over. He expects about 70% of the people buying these houses to come from outside, mainly Fairfield County, and about 30% from within Woodbridge.
Herrigan argued that if Woodbridge couples purchase one of those units, and sell their home to a family with children, it would cost the taxpayers more to educate those children than the new development would generate in revenue. Selectman Mica Cardozo said those couples would move anyways, if that is what they were planning to do. He said a number of Woodbridge residents moved to Fieldstone Village and are now paying taxes in Orange. “We hope to retain that tax revenue,” he said.
Economic Development Commission Chairman Jeremy Rosner said he expects the residents in those 120 new units to be frequenting local and area restaurants and stores and have an impact on commercial development.
Cheryl Lipson pointed out that St Pierre was not a licensed architect and not authorized to sign off on designs. He assured the audience that the designs would be legally signed off on.
Members of the Board of Finance were interested in the public buildings currently on the property. The clubhouse, which has been shuttered, will be demolished at the developer’s expense. He said he would refurbish the existing outdoor pool for the benefit of the town, and set up a smaller pool house with lockers and snack bar. He said the maintenance shed left over from the former golf operation was not part of the property he was planning to purchase and would remain the responsibility of the town.
The question whether the remaining land would be placed under a conservation easement became a burning question for some. First Selectman Beth Heller did not rule it out. “We can talk about it,” she said. The Fitzgerald property also is not protected by a conservation easement. The selectmen at the time decided to leave the use of the property open to future generations. “My intent is to hire a land-use analyst,” to guide the town in making that decision, she said. Heller has talked about turning the remaining property into a town park for everybody to enjoy.
Board of Finance member Ellen Scalettar asked St. Pierre about the legal entity that would sign the agreement with the town. St. Pierre said it will be an LLC with two members – himself and the Wernerts. She also emphasized that there would be no clear-cutting on the property to facilitate the construction. St. Pierre assured the board that “mature trees are the charm of that community.”
Cathy Wick, a member in the audience, warned that it was unlikely the revenue from the development was going to bring the mill rate down. She showed in a graph how per capita taxes in Orange and Woodbridge had increased at the same rate in the last ten years, even if Woodbridge taxes are higher than those in Orange. Fieldstone did not slow that increase, she said. Even so, the development has moved up to the top taxpayers in Orange, according to Orange First Selectman Jim Zeoli.
The Conservation Commission members brought up sustainable development concepts that would make the development more acceptable to them, such as solar panels and rain gardens, LED lighting and electric car chargers. “We want to support green development,” said Leland Torrence, a member of the commission.
“You are thinking of scarring the land and we have to be sure there is some benefit,” said Sharon DeKadt.
The developers were open to incorporating some of these ideas in their plans. St. Pierre assured them that sustainability was an important factor in his work, and that his design had won two awards for passive solar.
The commission also expressed concerns regarding the developers asking the town to remove the age restriction if the project does not sell as expected. “At what point do you make enough so that you don’t come back to the town” to remove the age restriction, DeKadt asked. Town Counsel Gerald Weiner at an earlier presentation said the town will impose deed restrictions to avoid such a scenario.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent