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Developer Charney Talks Affordable Housing and Being Persistent

By James Lomuscio

Developer Felix Charney said today that he expects Westport’s Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) to deny his application to build a 187-unit rental complex in Saugatuck when the commission meets Thursday, May 23.

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Developer Felix Charney: “This is not a greed-driven endeavor … There’s no need for rudeness and rancor.” (CLICK TO ENLARGE) James Lomuscio for WestportNow.com

He also said he is going straight to court to sue the town under the state’s affordable housing statute 8-30g.

If anything, Charney, principal of Southport-based Summit Development, is persistent. The expected suit will be his eighth try since 2002 to build an affordable housing, rental complex on Hiawatha Lane in Saugatuck.

“This is not a greed-driven endeavor,” said Charney, adding that his company is doing well financially, having built 1,500 residential units and 7 million square feet since he started out in 1982. “I’m very busy. I don’t need this. This is something I believe in.”

Summit currently has a number of projects in place in New York and Florida, as well as Connecticut. In October, Charney purchased the largest commercial building in the state, he said, the former Union Carbide headquarters and 100 acres in Danbury where he has plans for office, retail and residential units.

“I’m here because I believe in this form of housing,” Charney said about the Summit Saugatuck development plan where 30% of the units would be deemed affordable. “It’s to give them (residents) quality housing in towns with above average educational institutions and to provide those residents access to those institutions to help their children break the cycle of poverty.

“They’re going to turn it down; this project will be resolved by the courts,” he added. “We believe that 8-30g is valuable legislation to encourage diversity of housing in the more affluent communities in the state.”

One of the great ironies is that Charney is a former member of the very commission he has been battling and plans to sue. He served as a P&Z member from 1983 to 1985.

“I was just a fundamental believer in affordable housing; I’m completely sincere about this,” he said, adding that he has completed affordable housing projects in Norwalk, Darien and Greenwich, and that he is a financial supporter of Habitat for Humanity.

The affordable housing statute allows developers to override local zoning laws if a town does not have 10% of its housing stock deemed affordable, which Westport, at about 4%, does not. The statute has been strongly criticized by municipalities for enabling developers to ride roughshod over communities for financial gain.

Charney, 64 and who grew up in Westport from age 7 after his family moved to town from Queens, New York, stressed that is not the case with his proposal.

“When the town had a shortage of parking at the train station, they expanded it,” he said. “When the waitlist for boat slips at Compo grew too long, they expanded it (the marina).”

He said the Westport Housing Authority (WHS) has had a waiting list 1,000, one of the reasons he presented a plan in 2013 vis a joint venture with WHA for 155 units on the 8.8–acre site, 50% of which would be affordable. By a vote of 2 to 1, he said, the Board of Selectmen acting in the capacity of the Water Pollution Control Authority shot down the plan over sewage issues.

“I have no interest in being adversarial,” Charney said, saying that the location is appropriate because the neighborhood is pre-zoned for multifamily housing, is close to Exit 17 off I-95 and walking distance from the train station.

Summit Saugatuck, however, took a beating at the April 11 P&Z meeting, with Charney’s attorney Tim Hollister taking the blows in his fourth appearance before the commission on the latest plan.

P&Z members cited inadequate fire truck access, pedestrian safety concerns, traffic woes and the 8.8-acre property’s precarious location between the turnpike and the train station.

Hollister’s latest revisions to address some of the issues — putting in raised sidewalks to improve pedestrian safety, a 4,700-gallon underground cistern to supplement an inadequate water hydrant and designs to improve an unpaved access road from the Avalon development in Norwalk — seemed to raise even more ire.

Commissioner Chip Stephens called it troubling that Norwalk, which would have authority over the access line, was not yet on board, and that there was no guarantee that Norwalk would consider expanding its conservation easement on the road to the Westport town line.

At the same meeting, P&Z alternate John Olefson took Hollister to task over his talk about putting in raised sidewalks, saying that they would involve an eminent domain taking from existing area residents’ lots.

“When you say to yourself, ‘Why am I still doing this?’ it’s because I firmly believe in this type of housing, and someone needs to stand up to these bullies,” Charney said.

“You and I may disagree, but let’s conduct ourselves as ladies and gentlemen,” he added. “There’s no need for rudeness and rancor.”

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