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Thursday, February 04, 2016

At P&Z, Safety Trumps Affordable Housing

By James Lomuscio

Rejecting an applicant’s claim of bias, the Westport Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) tonight said fire safety, traffic safety, and environmental concerns trumped the state’s affordable housing statute.

WestportNow.com Image
The 1.16-acre parcel at 122 Wilton Road sits at the busy intersection of Kings Highway North and Wilton Road. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

By a unanimous vote, the P&Z denied an application to build a five-story, 48-unit housing complex, 30 percent of the units designated affordable, at 122 Wilton Road—at the busy Kings Highway North intersection—proposed under the 8-30g statute. The state law allows developers to override local zoning laws if a municipality does not have 10 percent of its housing stock listed as affordable, which Westport does not.

The vote came with a Saturday deadline looming for the P&Z to act on the application. The applicant, Garden Homes Management of Stamford, repeatedly refused a commision request to extend the 65-day limit to act on the proposal and for the first time tonight gave its reason.

Attorney Mark K. Branse, filling in for attorney John Fallon, who could not attend the meeting due to a conflict, contended that the commission was biased against the 8-30g project from the start.

“I think you need to understand how it looks from this side of the table, from the applicant’s side of the table,” he said. “I’ve been on your side of the table. I’ve served on the Planning and Zoning Commission of my town. I’ve represented commissions like yours in about 25 towns. So I do understand both sides of this issue.

“And the reason why my client won’t consent to an expansion of time is because he simply does not believe that this commission is able to or willing to grant an approval no matter what. It is that real.”

Branse said when the application was filed, there was a political campaign under way. And making reference to an online petition aginst the proposal submitted tonight, added the campaign “was actually promising your voters –- those 660 people who signed your petition -– that if elected, members of this commission would fight 8-30g applications.”

He added: “We just don’t believe that no matter what we do, no matter how long it takes, that we’re ever going to get an approval. That’s the reality.”

An agitated chairman Chip Stephens responded: “We’ve had applications that didn’t like the way we were talking or rooting. They threatened us with 8-30g, and we gladly said that’s a place where 8-30g belongs. We never said we’d fight 8-30g. We said we would fight inappropriate locations for 8-30g. Period.”

The lawyer then came back: “My client offered your first selectman to exchange this location for a different one.”  Stephens later noted commission members only recieved a copy of a letter to First Selectman Jim Marpe with the offer just before tonight’s meeting. He gave no details.

Later, P&Z member Jack Whittle told Branse: “You said that this commission has come to this hearing with something less than an open mind and has predetermined how we will vote. That’s not true.”

“That’s lovely, that’s flowery, might even get you a quote in the paper, but we’ve conducted three nights now of hearings in order to appreciate whether you have presented an application that we are going to vote yay or nay on—and to suggest that we could have just dispensed with all of this and no voted it right off the bat is absurd,” he added.

Commissioners in their work session zeroed in on their safety concerns, one of the reasons a court could sustain a P&Z denial of the application. The statute allows developers to appeal to the Superior Court and places the burden of proof on the town to justify the rejection.

That burden of proof must include specific evidence that the denial was necessary to protect substantial public interests in health and safety or that public interests clearly outweighed the need for affordable housing.

This process is in contrast to a typical court appeal of a zoning denial, where a developer needs to show town authorities were “arbitrary and capricious” in turning an application down.

“Lives count,” said Stephens. “It’s been said plainly by the fire chief.”

At last week’s P&Z meeting, Fire Chief Andrew Kingsbury said that the proposed development’s location adjacent to the Saugatuck River and at the busy intersection of Wilton Road and Kings Highway North would make it difficult for fire services to respond and maneuver a ladder truck to the rear of such a structure in the event of a fire.

“It (fire safety) clearly outweighs the need for affordable housing in Westport,” Stephens said.

P&Z member Alan Hodge also took issue with the applicant’s response last week to Kingsbury, saying only that the proposed wood framed structure would be built to code.

Whittle called the location at the busy intersection and adjacent to only one of three bridges in town that cross the Saugatuck River—aside from the Merritt Parkway and I-95 ones—a problem site.

“There probably isn’t a worse site for a 48-unit housing project,” he said.

P&Z members were quick to point out that their denial would not be a vote against affordable housing.

“I would love to see a real test of whether we support affordable housing,” said P&Z member David Lessing, adding that the problem plagued location made such a test moot.

RTM member Paul Leibowitz said that the location in the event of an emergency that could shut down the intersection would block a direct route to Norwalk Hospital.

P&Z member Alan Hodge said the irony of the proposed project is it would consign people who need affordable housing “to an unsafe place.”

“People will die,” he said.

He suggested the applicant come back with a proposal for which the property is already suited, “a single family home.”

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Posted 02/04/16 at 11:40 PM  Permalink



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