Question viability for proposed projects for town

To the Editor:

The issue of building new high-density housing developments in (mature) suburban communities like Fairfield is a difficult one.

While we all want to preserve the bucolic nature of our community and not put additional pressures on the heavily burdened taxpayer, it is faint-hearted to dismiss the lack of reasonably priced housing available for many middle-income families, seniors and young professionals just starting out in Fairfield and across other suburban communities in Connecticut.

While we do not claim to be experts on this issue, it is important for Fairfield residents to understand it was the General Assembly in Hartford that put the current requirements for 8-30g housing in place for communities across Connecticut back in 1989.

Essentially, the state statute allows developers in towns that do not have a housing stock that is deemed 10% “affordable” to skirt many local Town Plan & Zoning requirements provided the developer includes a 30% allocation of such housing for the next 40 years in their development plans.

Based on the current definition contained within Connecticut Statute 8-30b, which, by the way, we believe underestimates the number of affordable housing units in Fairfield, our town has a housing stock of roughly 2.3% today by these standards.

It is interesting to note that while the 8-30g statute has not lived up to its intent of notably increasing the stock of affordable housing across Connecticut over recent years, and many towns continue to wrestle with how best to address its requirements, the General Assembly has not updated this statute since 2002 to make it more palatable.

One of the obvious questions is why? We simply do not know the answer, but it may very well be that there is a suburban-urban divide among some state legislators. (For a more detailed discussion on the specifics of 8-30g, please see the General Assembly’s Office of Legislative Research report from 1/29/13: “Affordable Housing Land Use Appeals,” which may be found at cga.ct.gov/2013/rpt/2013-R-0002.htm.)

With this background, it is unclear to us how Fairfield will ever meet this 10% definitional threshold without the construction of massive amounts of multi-story apartment buildings in our town and/or a modification to what qualifies as this type of housing. As such, barring any changes at the state level, 8-30g may well become a zone busting statute in Fairfield and across Connecticut.

As the debate continues to unfold, we first want to acknowledge the efforts and thoughtfulness of our TP&Z Commission as it has begun to review a number of high-density housing applications in Fairfield, including the recent public comment hearings on the Berwick-Fairchild development and the current review of Bronson Road.

As with the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance, we respect the sovereignty of TP&Z’s decision-making authority. At the same time, we do want to offer some food for thought on the areas that are under review (namely public safety) for the Bronson Road application in Southport that will be voted on by the TP&Z Commission on or before July 24, and it is noteworthy that similar areas of concern have been raised about the Berwick-Fairchild application:

• As the Town engineer has noted, 24 feet is the minimum width for a public right of way for access to a new development; the Bronson Road applicant permit only provides for 20 feet.

We believe anything less than 24 feet would potentially create a public safety issue if there was to be a fire or other type of emergency at the proposed multi-story complex, particularly since there is no other planned entrance/exit way to the property.

Moreover, recent testimony from Fairfield Fire Chief Richard Felner echoed similar concerns: “For the safety and welfare of residents and emergency personnel, yes, I do think it’s unsafe,” referring to the 20-foot wide driveway proposed by the developer.” (Fairfield Citizen, 7/16/14)

• Based on a recent legal presentation, it appears the access point to the property is in fact a town road, not private property. The proposed development includes changes to this public road. Changes of this type would need buy in from all surrounding neighbors, which it does not appear to have.

As an alternative, the town could conceivably abandon the road to satisfy the developer, but that would require approval from both the Board of Selectmen and the Representative Town Meeting.

• There does not appear to be sufficient parking for 96 apartment units on a 2.25 acre piece of property and street parking is not an option.

• The current remediation plan for the Mill River does not address the known issue of chromium pollution. It seems to us that there might be a health issue constructing this development at the foot of the river, never mind the cityscape it would create for kayakers and those homes already located on the river.

• Lower Bronson Road is busy, particularly near the Exit 20 entrance ramp to I-95. Regardless of traffic studies undertaken, common sense tells you there will be more traffic in the area, which will create additional congestion and potential safety problems;

• The surrounding area has an insufficient supply of sidewalks, traffic signals and crosswalks. Many residents of this development will most likely look to commute to work from the Southport train station where there is an estimated 30-month wait for a parking permit. Many of these residents, as an alternative, most likely will look to walk to the train station.

Unfortunately, this would be a dangerous proposition given the traffic issues on Bronson Road and the lack of pedestrian infrastructure leading from the proposed development to the Southport train station.

• Moreover, the location is currently deemed in walking distance to the Mill Hill School, so any children living at the complex would need to make the trek to school without adequate curbing, sidewalks and pedestrian signage. We also unfortunately recognize that the issue of adding students to an already crowded school and the potential cost is not something that the TP&Z Commission may take into account when reviewing these types of applications.

As previously noted, many of these aforementioned issues, including traffic concerns, access by emergency vehicles, narrowness of roads, etc., were highlighted during the public comment period for the proposed Berwick-Fairchild development that ended several weeks back and will be voted on by the TP&Z Commission no later than Aug. 21.

Again, while we are town legislators, not planning and zoning specialists, it is clear to us that the proposed developments on both Bronson Road and Berwick-Fairchild raise a plethora of suitability and public safety issues for our town, and, as such, we do not believe either is an appropriate development for our town as presented.

We wish our town’s TP&Z Commission the best of luck as it grapples with the complex issue of high-density housing, and respectfully request they keep our views in mind as they think through this serious topic, and may wisdom be their guide.

Going forward, we encourage the public to stay informed and engaged on this issue, to participate in the public hearings (in person or watch on FairTV) and to ask their elected officials where they stand on the issue of high-density housing.

Along these lines, come November, Fairfield’s entire state delegation is up for election, and it is the Connecticut State Statute 8-30g that is driving these high-density development applications in Fairfield and across Connecticut.

It would behoove all of us to ask these candidates about their views on these types of developments in concrete terms and to ask ourselves whether these candidates have shown leadership by attending and speaking up about this issue at recent TP&Z Commission meetings and other venues, and if their views are consistent with want we want for our town as we move ahead as one community.

 

Edward J. Bateson

Republican Majority Leader

Fairfield RTM

 

Michael D. Herley

Republican Deputy Majority Leader

Fairfield RTM

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