Housing has become a hot topic of conversation in Wilton.
The array of Wilton housing options has been relatively stable over many years, but more recently it feels like a seismic shift is underway, due to a confluence of factors:
- A pandemic-fueled influx of potential new residents and booming residential real estate market
- New zoning reforms at the state level and pressure by housing advocacy groups that seek more diverse and affordable housing options, often targeting “exclusionary” practices by local zoning authorities
- The recognition by town leaders (even before the pandemic or the new legislation) that more “middle housing” is imperative for Wilton’s longterm vitality
In that changing landscape, a little-known town committee is just getting off the ground.
In a lengthy exchange via email, GOOD Morning Wilton interviewed Housing Committee Chair John C. Kelly to understand how the fledgling committee might influence the critical — and often politically fraught — conversation about Wilton housing, and ultimately impact its direction.
Origin and Purpose
When Wilton updated the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) in 2019, it recognized and detailed the need to increase the diversity of Wilton’s housing stock — which is predominantly single-family homes on 1-2 acres — in order to attract and retain residents at various life stages and income levels (such as young singles, downsizing homeowners, and municipal workers, for example).
In setting a clear goal to “increase housing options to benefit the shared interests of the Town’s residential and commercial communities,” the POCD envisions “a Wilton where new housing typologies and mixed-use designs emerge through organic means to provide desired and versatile living, working, shopping, and entertaining opportunities and experiences.”
The POCD identified a role for a new committee to help achieve that goal. Shortly thereafter, Wilton’s Board of Selectmen (BOS) unanimously approved the creation of the new Housing Committee.
The committee’s purpose is “to evaluate, define, and monitor the need for diverse housing options and affordable housing in Wilton,” with specific tasks and responsibilities, according to the town website:
- Study and document the need within Wilton for each housing type, including affordable housing
- Seek input from various stakeholders, including residents, developers, and Town personnel
- Create an inventory of existing housing types and afforable housing units in Wilton
- Identify ways, including funding sources, to encourage diverse housing development
Unlike Wilton’s Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission, the Housing Committee does not have authority on housing matters, but serves in an advisory capacity to the BOS.
The committee’s first meeting took place on Jan. 12, 2021. At that time, only three of the committee’s maximum seven members had been named. In addition to Kelly, a 28-year resident of Wilton and retired attorney with expertise in commercial real estate, the committee members included:
- Bettye Ragognetti, longtime Wilton resident and town employee, and former Town Clerk
- David Rintoul, a labor, employment and general business lawyer
Two new members were recently appointed by the BOS:
- Suzanne Wakeen, a senior executive in commercial real estate lending at People’s United Bank, approved just before the committee’s July 13 meeting
- Ryan Sullivan, a realtor with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, approved by the BOS on July 20
Initial Focus on Inventory
Kelly told GMW that the committee’s initial focus will be the task-oriented inventory work.
“The housing inventory ideally will capture available information about all the various types of housing available in Wilton, which could then be used to help decision-makers better understand the existing diversity of the Town’s housing stock, identify gaps that might exist, and potentially take actions to address perceived needs,” said Kelly.
“The committee is still in the data collection mode,” he added. “This has been somewhat challenging, as differing resources have provided different results which we must try to reconcile.” (Kelly credited the assistance of the Assessor’s Office as well as Peg Koellmer, another Berkshire Hathaway realtor, in that effort.)
Additionally, the committee is reviewing the work done in 2018-2019 by the town’s Real Estate Study Committee, a group temporarily appointed by the BOS to examine town-owned properties. Kelly indicated there could be “potential for possible future housing alternatives on these properties or other undeveloped Town land.”
But Kelly also emphasized the pursuit of more diverse housing will not be blind to the town’s other interests.
“Wilton will support diverse housing types, while at the same time protecting its low-density neighborhoods and respecting the natural and historic environment,” Kelly said.
Indeed, the POCD is explicit about the town’s goal to “preserve and protect Wilton’s established rural and lower-density residential neighborhoods” and to ensure that “natural and historical environments are preserved, integrated, and improved” along with achieving more housing diversity.
The POCD envisions new development primarily along the Danbury Road corridor, as well as in Wilton Center and village centers of Cannondale and Georgetown. Of late, developers have certainly been eying those areas, too.
The Changing Landscape (Literally and Figuratively)
In an April 19 statement to the town, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice advised residents of a surge she had noticed in developers’ interest in multi-family housing projects in Wilton. At the time, Vanderslice wrote, “Interest in building apartments in Wilton is at an unprecedented level,” as she cited potential projects at:
- 2/24 Pimpewaug Rd. (163 units near Danbury Rd.)
- 3 Hubbard Road (27 units in Wilton Center)
- 64 Danbury Rd. (116 units in the Wilton Corporate Park)
- 141 Danbury Road (173 units at the former site of the Melissa and Doug offices; a final application was just filed on July 19)
Even more potential projects are now percolating, including 24 Danbury Rd. and 221 Danbury Rd., which would have a combined 239 units.
None of the above projects have actually been approved yet.
Two significant projects that have been given the green light are 200 Danbury Rd. (at the corner of Sharp Hill Rd., now under construction, with 24 residential units) and 300 Danbury Rd. (previously known as Crossways, at the intersection of Ridgefield Rd., with 74 units). [Editor’s note: the 300 Danbury Rd. development is currently on hold as the developer seeks new funding.]
Too Much, Too Fast?
Kelly sees some risk in the recent flurry of development.
“In the near term, I am somewhat concerned that some of the Town’s least expensive, ‘naturally affordable’ housing stock has been or is slated to be demolished as part of new developments that will admittedly provide many more new apartment units, but at higher rental price points than the older properties,” he said. (One example of that is 200 Danbury Rd., where older, modest apartments will be replaced by more upscale units.)
Longer-term, Kelly says, he is concerned that the town’s efforts to achieve progress toward the POCD goals in a “thoughtful” and strategic way “will be outstripped by the pace of developers’ demands.”
Wilton’s Planning & Zoning Commission (P&Z) has proven its willingness to make reasonable concessions to developers, consistent with POCD strategy. But when those “developers’ demands” are emboldened by Connecticut’s 8-30g affordable housing statute, P&Z simply doesn’t have the leverage.
As Douglas Cutler, the developer of the 24 and 221 Danbury Road projects (which both invoke the 8-30g statute), recently told P&Z, “8-30g affords me rights that I otherwise may not have under the old regulations.” Cutler was referring to building height, density and setback regulations which his conceptual plans clearly flout.
Kelly points out that the various projects being considered in Wilton would more than double Wilton’s inventory of apartments, if all moved forward. As projects are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, Kelly seems to fear that the sum total “may not adequately balance the competing concerns of increasing housing stock diversity while respecting historical, environmental and lower-density neighborhood issues.”
Ideally, Kelly would like to take a broader view that includes surrounding towns. “I would love to see expanded efforts to assess housing needs on a more regional basis,” he said. “I was surprised to learn that in addition to the thousands of apartment units that have been built in Stamford and Norwalk in the past five or so years, there are another eight or 9,000 additional units in those cities that are under construction or seeking approvals to build.”
“What will that increase in supply do to demand for apartments in towns like Wilton?” Kelly wondered.
Some town commission members are asking the same question. At a recent P&Z meeting on the subject of 24 and 211 Danbury Rd. projects, commissioner Doris Knapp said, “Has anyone done a market survey as to whether or not Wilton can absorb this amount of new apartments? The issue is can we absorb [hundreds of] new apartments — studios, one-bedrooms, two bedrooms… [will there be] people to fill them up?”
And How Affordable Will They Really Be?
In addition to the key objective of increasing the availability of more diverse housing types, the POCD states the related objective of diversifying the price points of Wilton’s housing stock.
“Diversifying the price points of housing will increase the Town’s ability to attract and retain a socio-economically diverse range of individuals and households inclusive of young professionals and seniors,” according to the POCD.
But discussion about affordability quickly becomes a semantic exercise. There’s “affordable housing” (as defined under the 8-30g affordable housing statute) and then there’s affordable housing (what an individual can afford to pay in the marketplace).
Kelly uses the term “naturally affordable” to refer to housing types, such as accessory dwelling units (ADUs) or smaller homes, that are generally less expensive than a typical Wilton single-family home.
Under the new state zoning reforms, ADU’s were deemed “as of right” to single-family homeowners, though they have long been permitted in Wilton. However, ADUs rarely “count” toward Wilton’s supply of “affordable housing” as they are generally not deed-restricted as the state statute requires.
ADUs are just one example of the challenge Wilton faces to increase its count of “affordable housing.” Wilton’s affordable housing units are just 3.3% of its total inventory, according to Kelly’s current estimate.
Under the 8-30g statute, if a town has less than 10% of its housing inventory designated as affordable, developers who propose building affordable housing units are not subject to many of the usual local zoning regulations, such as on building height, density or setbacks. (Public health and safety concerns are an exception, as is environmental protection.)
Even the POCD acknowledges that reaching the 10% threshold is unlikely in the foreseeable future.
“Wilton is not likely to reach the 10% affordable housing threshold established by CGS §8-30g during the next ten years due to the sheer numbers of new units that are required,” the POCD states.
But that doesn’t mean Wilton won’t try to close the affordability gap.
The POCD also states, “The Town will continue to increase its affordable housing stock [and] help facilitate the expansion of more diverse housing through regulatory changes, establishing alternative funding structures, or utilizing Town-owned land.”
During his brief tenure, Kelly has been impressed with the work the town has already done. He referred to the POCD as “incredibly impressive” with an “exhaustive review” of Wilton land use and a “forward-looking vision for development.”
He added, “I must say, the more I learn, the more impressed I am with the efforts that the Town has undertaken to address housing needs. [Since] the early ‘90s when almost all multi-family development was vigorously resisted, the Town’s approach has shifted fairly dramatically.”
Kelly noted that well before TOD (transit-oriented development) became a trendy zoning acronym, Wilton had accomplished two major projects in close proximity to the Wilton Center train station: Wilton Commons (21 Station Rd., with 51 apartments for seniors plus 23 congregate living units) and Station Place (31 Old Danbury Rd., with 30 units).
Both of those projects added significant numbers to Wilton’s count of affordable housing. Combined, they account for roughly 80 of Wilton’s total 215 affordable units.
As the total number of housing units increase, the percentage of affordable units is hard to move, even when 10%, 20% or even 30% of the units are designated as affordable units.
According to Kelly’s estimates, the more-than-doubling of Wilton’s apartment inventory, including the number of affordable units currently being proposed, would only increase Wilton’s percentage of affordable housing from, roughly, 3.3% to 4%.
Therein lies Wilton’s huge housing challenge.