SPECIAL REPORT: Debate Intensifies Over 44 Westport Rd. Development
The debate is intensifying over a planned multi-unit apartment building in development for the lot at 44 Westport Rd., at the intersection with Dudley Rd..
Some neighbors and other town residents are upset with the proposal and are mobilizing to try and prevent the project from moving forward; the developer is hoping the town will hear his reasons for bringing the project to that location before making a judgement.
The proposal that was recently submitted to the town by developer Patrick Downend asks to take down the historic single-family home that currently sits at 44 Westport Rd. and build a 20-unit apartment complex with 41 parking spaces on the one-acre lot. The property is abutted by single-family homes in a residential neighborhood zoned for single-family homes on one-acre parcels. Just south on Westport Rd., on the other side across the Dudley Rd. intersection, sits the large commercial office building at 10 and 20 Westport Rd.
The development is being planned under the umbrella of affordable housing laws. The state regulation at the heart of the dispute is the State’s “Affordable Land Use Appeals Act,” known as CGA 8-30g, something that was drafted about 20 years ago. Through the statute, the Connecticut General Assembly mandates that all CT towns should have at least 10-percent of its housing stock qualify as affordable housing. Both public and private development of affordable housing falls under the legislation.
CGA 8-30g defines affordable housing as housing that is available to eligible persons or families with income that is 80-percent of the state median income; in Fairfield County, that median income is $82,614, according to the most recent U.S. census figures.
Of the 20 units planned for the location, six of them will be classified as ‘affordable.’
What the debate is gradually centering on is that affordable housing: opponents to the plan charge that the developer is using the affordable housing state laws to circumvent local jurisdiction, proposing a property that not only doesn’t belong in the neighborhood where it’s proposed–and setting a dangerous precedent–but that will cause safety issues; the developer has argued that there is a significant need for affordable housing in Wilton, that his plan offers a high-quality, attractive option to meet that need, and that his project is being mischaracterized.
Affordable Housing and Wilton
While Wilton has had affordable “set-aside” requirements within the town’s four multi-family residential zones (most of which are located in and around Wilton Center) since the late 1980s, the state legislation impacting this proposal supersedes any town zoning laws.
Town planner Robert Nerney explained the state law assumes that the need for affordable housing “trumps” any other need a town might consider when they’re looking at zoning requirements and building proposals, including population density, neighborhood character and the like.
“When a developer or land owner wants to change the zoning to a different classification, it’s a fairly rigorous process. We have the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, the community’s long-range plan that has a land-use element. The [Planning and Zoning] board has great discretion when it comes to changing zoning districts. But 8-30g is different: normally the burden rests with the applicant [to prove why a zone should change], but under affordable housing, that burden shifts to the town. So it’s the town that has to substantiate its decision [to block such housing] and prove it,” he said.
According to Nerney, there are currently 236 affordable housing units in Wilton, which constitutes 3.64-percent of available housing in the town. Those numbers include the most recent locations built in town, particularly Wilton Commons on Station Rd., and Avalon at 116 Danbury Rd., which together increased the amount by approximately 1-percent.
What the Developer Says
The 44 Westport Rd. project is the first one Downend has proposed for development in Wilton; he has built similar properties in nearby Ridgefield, where he lives. “I’m a commercial and multi-family project developer; one component of these multi-family [projects] is the affordable housing.”
“If you look at my product, it’s easily the better product compared to my competitors, in terms of how it’s landscaped and maintained. This building is going to be beautiful. I do a nice product. There’s a variety of one- and two-bedroom units, in-apartment washer/dryers, there’s storage, there are 7 or 8 garages, granite countertops, beautiful appliances. They’ll range from 1,000-to-1,300 sq. ft..”
While the units will appear identical, Downend said the affordable units will rent for $1,000-$1,500 monthly; the others will range $2,500-$3,500. “If they’re worried about affordable, that should speak to that,” he said.
Downend maintains he’s trying to make the project visually appropriate for the feel of the neighborhood.
“It’s going to fit, and it’s not going to look as obtrusive as it may appear. The two most prominent elevations, when you’re looking at the building, it’s only going to be two stories. It’s only where the land pitches back [and down] where you have two stories above the garages, in the rear. We made the roofline a little squat, we tried to bring the height down and minimize its visual impact.”
Projects he said that are similar that he’s developed are at 593 Main St. and 613 Main St. in Ridgefield. He acknowledged that he met initial resistance in that town when the projects were initially proposed, but said, “Now the buildings are up, everybody’s comfortable with it, nobody’s property values went down, in fact property values have gone up 20-percent in that time. They end up being a nice part of the fabric of the community.”
The Westport Rd. location was one that fit almost everything Downend finds important. “I look for utilities, as a practical matter–you need sewer and water. The other attributes I noticed is that it’s very close to town, it’s close to the commuter parking lot; if you look at that neighborhood, it’s close to Lambert Commons and other multi-family [units]; it is across the street from a very large commercial property. It looked like a good location.”
Initially, he anticipated that any community resistance would spring from the historic appeal of the home. According to a Wilton Bulletin article from 1961, the original part of the home was built in 1759 and once served as housing for slaves owned by the Lambert family, a family deeply enmeshed in Wilton history.
“What’s interesting is that 70-percent of it is from the 1940s; there’s a very small piece that exists from the original house–and that piece has been renovated and updated. There’s also a cottage that’s referred to as the ‘Lambert Cottage.’ Whatever we can extract of that historic piece, I’d be glad to donate it to the Historical Society. They can move it to the [Lambert] corner,” Downend offered.
As for complaints that the one-acre location is too small for a 20-unit building with 41 parking spots, Downend counters that something even more compact already exists in Wilton.
“I’ll remind people that there is a 25-unit apartment building in town on a half-acre with zero green space, less parking. And you know who put that building there? The town of Wilton. It’s called the Wilton Arms,” he said, referring to the rental apartment building at 3 Hubbard Rd., next to the Wilton Post Office in Wilton Center. That building was built shortly after World War II as housing for soldiers returning from the war.
As for criticism that he may be using the state affordable housing laws to circumvent local zoning restrictions, Downend said, “Isn’t that a little like saying the guys who are developing on two acres are circumventing 4-acre residential zoning?” referring perhaps to Wilton’s historical zoning changes once also viewed as controversial. “It should be considered among all the other zoning regulations in town. I didn’t create the law; the law has been out there, and without this there would be very, very little opportunities for these people to have a decent place.”
Downend referred to Wilton’s Plan of Conservation, noting that it says 62 of the available affordable housing units in Wilton will be expiring between 2016 and 2020. “Then there’s going to be negligible affordable housing in Wilton. My project replaces 10-percent of those expiring units.” He also said the report states a majority of Wilton residents support affordable housing options for seniors and town employees, and that the town’s own research shows that more than one-third of renters are paying over 30-percent of their income on housing.
As the developer, he’s eager to correct what he calls “a gigantic misunderstanding” about what affordable housing is.
“People are scared and they think it’s other things–‘projects’ or low-income, or whatever. It’s a completely different animal. Sixty percent of my tenants are typically seniors on fixed incomes or divorced, single parents; I’ve had a baker, a bicycle mechanic. These are people who need a low-priced option. It’s about putting quality of life ahead of the financial limitations that a lot of people encounter in life,” Downend says.
At the heart of who this will help, Downend argues, are people “who are 55-plus, that are downsizing; they’ve had it with the house, they’re moving to a fixed-income situation. It’s perfect for them. They don’t have the yard. While we don’t usually get a lot of kids in our buildings, divorcing families–they can stay in town for affordability reasons and don’t have to move out, they can stay in the school system.”
While he says he “welcomes the neighbors,” he takes the position that, “They have a right to do things and I have a right to do things. It’s an open pluralistic society, thank God. I hate for people to lose sight–most of those neighbors are closer to that 500,000 sq. ft. office building [at 10- and 20 Westport Rd.] than they are to my little, in comparison, development. It’s very visible, especially at night with the lights, and very visible especially along Dudley.”
Overall, what Downend is stressing is the demand for his kind of residence in Wilton, no matter the location.
“The need is unquestionable,” he said. “This project is going to bring an opportunity for a really nice place to live, for all the people that need it, and there is an abundance of need. That building will fill up before it’s finished; that is the kind of demand there is for that product for seniors and people in town who are not in the top 1-percent. The neighbors have to decide if they want to welcome these neighbors and embrace the notion that we can all live together.”
What the Neighbors Say
Lisa and Michael Huff own the Dudley Rd. home that abuts the property at 44 Westport Rd., and they’ve become the unofficial spokespeople for the growing group of town residents who oppose the developer’s plan. They say that this isn’t a case of ‘not-in-my-backyard’ and that it isn’t because they appose affordable housing.
“We are not against multi-unit housing, we are not against affordable housing. We think that’s all great. We just think in cases like this the only people that benefit are the developer.”
They say many other suburban and more rural communities comparable to Wilton are facing similar challenges because of the state mandated housing percentage requirements, which Huff says makes them targets for developers.
“Developers are coming in looking for plots of land, putting up multi-unit housing, labeling a few of them ‘affordable housing’ so they can bypass local zoning regulations,” she said.
The lot that was purchased at 44 Westport Rd. is currently zoned as single-family. Despite the developer’s stance about there being adequate space on the one acre, Huff disagrees. The group she represents says Downend’s plan is too extreme, especially in a residential area that has mostly single-family homes.
“There’s no green area, there’s no sidewalks, there’s no play area. It’s all squeezed onto one acre. There are multiple entrances and exits planned on Dudley Rd. and Westport Rd.,” Huff said. “There are also plans to put multiple big lights, 10-30 ft. high lights all around the building.”
That also say that six units is too small to make any difference in the affordable housing deficit that the state legislation is targeting.
“Six units just does not help Wilton all that much,” Huff said. “We’d like the town of Wilton to have a plan. Not just for this particular proposal, but the town should have a plan in place to deal with the issue of affordable housing–where to put it, how to deal with it–so that it benefits everyone–current residents, the people moving in. Would you want to live in an apartment complex with no amenities? There’s no sidewalks, there’s no green, it’s basically a building and parking spots. It doesn’t seem like that helps anyone.”
The residents working to stop the development caution that if the project is allowed to proceed, it has implications for all of Wilton.
“If we give a green light to this one, it’s like giving a green light to developers to come in to Wilton. It might be that some areas of Wilton are more appealing–this property is on city water, city sewers–but who’s to say your neighbors couldn’t just build and change to an apartment complex. What’s to stop developers from going up and down the road, one after another, and you get small numbers of affordable housing units here and there, and it’s not really helping the town overall to get to 10 percent.”
For the Huff family, they acknowledge their individual concerns: “For our kids’ safety–the entrance and parking is right next to our driveway, where our kids play. It doesn’t appear that there would be any border there.”
But there is a broader coalition of neighbors and Wilton residents who are actively beginning to coordinate to try and stop the development, who say they too are concerned with safety issues they relate to the proposal. One specific thing they cite is the traffic at the corner of the Dudley and Westport Rds. intersection, especially during the morning commute.
“It’s generally pretty backed up at peak times. Definitely one of the big concerns is this intersection–not just the congestion and the number of cars, but having a large building right there at a very difficult corner. The visibility, some of the turns, several roads across the street would be competing with turning cars, and there’s no light here–it’s our understand a new stoplight wouldn’t even be an option with other stoplights so close. It’s not just the number of cars, it’s the pattern of traffic. Dudley is a very busy road and people go very fast,” Huff said.
Such traffic worries also present a safety concern for the prospective residents of any large apartment building that would be built, according to Huff, who disagrees with Downend about how accessible the building would be to town amenities for anyone on foot.
“There are no sidewalks, and we’re not really in walking distance to any grocery store anyway, or any town services,” she adds.
Another issue the neighborhood group is exploring is whether or not there could be impact to wetlands, and they cite likely runoff issue with so much pavement and ground cover involved in the plans and any tree cutting that would likely be involved.
“Neighbors are concerned with the significant environmental impact,” Huff said.
In addition to creating a Facebook page called “Save 44 Westport,” they are also linking up via email and regular meetings. Huff said they are encouraging everyone in Wilton to learn about the issue, to go to P&Z to see the plans for themselves, and to write emails to local and state officials, including planning & zoning.
“There are other CT towns who have been doing moratoriums, and we’ve been in touch with the selectmen and [state representative] Gail Lavielle, [state senator] Toni Boucher and [state representative] Tom O’Dea.”
There is a public hearing planned for next Monday evening, June 9, at 7:15 p.m.. Because of the expected turnout, P&Z has moved the location from their usual meeting space at Town Hall to the Brubeck Room at the Wilton Library, at 137 Old Ridgefield Rd..