Connecticut housing initiative bills could challenge development in Darien

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A view of Pemberton 13, an 8-30g housing development at the corner of Leroy and West Avenues. – Google Maps

As Connecticut considers new regulations to promote affordable housing across the state, Darien has been working to meet existing state requirements with major redevelopments on the way. Two bills brought forward during the current legislative session have recommended withholding state funding from municipalities that do not meet the state’s goals for fair and affordable housing.

The Planning & Zoning Commission is tasked with guiding local development but the introduction of new laws at the state level could affect the commission’s ability to regulate affordable housing projects in Darien. One of the proposed bills, HB 5482, An Act Concerning the Recommendations of the Fair Housing Working Group put forward inclusionary zoning regulations that would not be unlike those already in place in Darien, but could leave less room for local commissions to dictate development.

The Fair Housing Working Group is a bipartisan group comprised of housing officials, developers, lawyers and fair housing advocates. State Housing Commissioner Evonne Klein said the organizations recommendations are designed to remove barriers to fair housing choice that have led Connecticut to be one of the most segregated states in the country.

However,Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman John Sini said that with less leeway to negotiate affordable housing requirements at the local level, developers could be discouraged from pursuing new projects in Connecticut, leading to less new housing being constructed overall.

“Unlike Darien’s inclusionary zoning regulation which offers the P&Z discretion to create onsite, offsite affordable units or a fee-in-lieu, the proposed state statute required that developers create onsite affordable units and left no discretion to local commissions,” Sini said. “In addition, the proposal required the affordable units to be created with same exact construction and finishings as the market rate units.”

HB 5482 failed to pass in the legislature’s Joint Committee on Planning and Development with an 11-11 vote in late March, with one absentee. Sini said that in at least one case, the bill does not provide the same level of incentives as Darien’s current inclusionary zoning law either. The town’s existing density incentive allows up 50% greater density than traditionally permitted, as long as 25% of the additional incentive units are affordable. HB 5482 would allow projects with affordable units to increase density up to 20%.

A second bill, HB 5045, An Act Establishing Accountability and Fair and Affordable Housing Through Zoning Regulations, would set new standards for fair and affordable housing and remains on the legislative docket. The bill is currently being reviewed by the offices of legislative research and fiscal analysis. Sini said that while he supports fair housing practices, he doesn’t believe that statewide zoning regulations should be the method of implementation.

“It’s clear, the local inclusionary zoning regulation in Darien working. It has already created five affordable units associated with the Knoble Hill and Kensett’s Phase II developments as well as a deposit in the Affordable Housing Trust Fund that is targeted for the Old Town Hall Homes redevelopment,” Sini said in a statement to the Times.

He continued, “The approved Palmer’s and Federal Reality mixed-use redevelopment projects include several onsite affordable units as well. We are also awaiting the final site plan associated with Baywater’s Corbin project that should also create several additional affordable dwelling units.”

The chairman of the state’s Department of Housing is former Darien First Selectman Evonne Klein.

“I was surprised given the State Housing Commissioner was said to be involved with the creation of the bill, yet I am not aware that she sought input from her hometown of what has worked and what hasn’t,” Sini said.

Local leaders have stressed the importance of creating a diverse housing stock in Darien as aging homeowners often look to migrate away from the town when they decide to downsize. The approved mixed-use developments in Noroton Heights will create new housing options for adults without children, while also bringing Darien closer to state requirements for affordable housing. Old Town Hall Homes will add more than 20 new affordable apartments for senior citizens, further bolstering the town’s affordable housing stock.

An existing state statute, 8-30g, allows developers to circumvent local zoning in towns that do not meet the state’s affordable housing goals, which include making at least 10% of the local housing stock affordable. Darien does not meet that goal but successfully earned a second four-year moratorium on the statute in 2016. Because the town is 97% developed, Darien must prove to the state that it is making consistent progress towards the 10% affordable housing goal. As it stands, Darien’s housing market is less than 5% affordable

One development approved with the help of 8-30g is currently struggling to find a market, highlighting how a disconnect between local zoning and state initiatives can impact a project. Pemberton 16 is an apartment building with 16 condominiums located on a 0.47-acre property on the corner of Leroy Avenue and West Avenue. Chris and Margaret Stefanoni originally proposed the project in 2008 with five affordable units but the site plan was rejected by Darien’s Planning & Zoning Commission because of its density. However, the Stefanonis challenged the decision in court and were able to have their site plan approved by a state judge based on 8-30g.

At the time, Judge Henry Cohn of New Britain explained his decision by saying “The test is whether substantial safety concerns outweigh the need for affordable housing. The commission has not met this test.”

The site plan was approved in court in 2012 and the property was later sold to another developer, Nick Barile, in 2014. Though Barile worked with town boards to review the site plan, the project retained its approved density. Construction on the project finished in 2016, and while the five affordable units have sold in the range of $200,000, the other 11 units in the building are now being offered as rentals.

“With the appropriate financial restructuring(s), the project will eventually become viable,” Sini said of Pemberton. “However, the cost of that viability will be significant losses to its investors while placing a considerable burden on neighboring property owners due to its mass and height that is uncharacteristic for the neighborhood.”

While the state may be working to prioritize its own affordable housing goals through regulation, Darien has been working at its own pace to diversify the town’s housing stock and promote necessary redevelopments, officials say.

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