Images of a cottage cluster, which if built on town-owned land, could help Westport meet the state’s mandate to provide more affordable housing, zoning officials said Wednesday. 

By John Schwing

WESTPORT — Thinking smaller may have a bigger impact on the town’s efforts to provide more affordable housing.

The concept of so-called “cottage clusters” is guiding a new effort to meet goals set by the town’s state-mandated affordable housing plan, adopted last June by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The idea, expected to be proposed as a text amendment to the town’s zoning regulations, was outlined Wednesday afternoon by P&Z Chairwoman Danielle Dobin to a meeting of the commission’s Affordable Housing Subcommittee.

As the state General Assembly weighs adoption of impactful legislation on housing issues in the waning days of its current session, the P&Z subcommittee focused on attaining targets set forth in its local plan, particularly the approach of clustering small, cottage-like units on town-owned land. All of the cottages would be deed-restricted as “affordable,” as defined by state criteria.

Prefabricated cottages could be considered as affordable units, if the Planning and Zoning Commission adopts a text amendment to facilitate such developments.

The cottage clusters, Dobin said, could be developed under a new text amendment that, in brief, would:

  • Apply only to town-owned land.
  • Allow more flexibility in density, setbacks and parking than currently allowed.
  • Deed-restrict all units as “affordable” to comply with the qualifying income criteria for residents set by the state.
  • Maximum footprint per unit would be 850 square feet, with at least 10 feet between each unit.
  • Off-street parking would be required, and would be allowed in property setbacks.
  • Projects would be configured to provide a common green space.

The text amendment would give town officials direct control over such undertakings, Dobin noted. The projects could be constructed in partnership with a nonprofit agency or funded through money allocated by a local housing trust fund that officials are concurrently planning to establish, she said.

Cottage plan: Same yield, less dense

A 14-unit cottage cluster, Dobin told the meeting, with all the rentals restricted to affordable levels, would yield the same number of affordable units as a 70-unit development, with a 20 percent affordable set-aside, as required under the town’s inclusionary zoning regulation. The other 56 units in that project would be rented at market rates, she said.

With the cottage cluster, “We would have the same 14 affordable units, but we wouldn’t have those 56 market-rate units , which often are two bedrooms that rent for upwards of $7,000 to $8,000 a month in Westport,” she said.

The cottage cluster concept was well received by residents providing feedback for the town’s affordable housing plan, Dobin noted. “I think that’s what was so interesting to so many Westport residents — the idea of diversifying housing” that complies with state requirements, she said, but does not add significantly to density that causes problems like the traffic congestion that already plagues the town’s major roads.

Photos of cottage-style structures, which officials said could be built under terms of the new text amendment, were projected during the online meeting.

Dobin called them “pretty” and “charming.” Some of the models are prefabricated buildings, which she said could be constructed for about $180,000 per unit.

Concept wins support

The general concept of developing clusters of affordable cottages gained broad support from those joining Wednesday’s meeting, perhaps most crucially from P&Z members Paul Lebowitz and Neil Cohn.

A potential site for an affordable cottage development is the town-owned Linxweiler property on Post Road East, where  the former home on the site is now managed as emergency family accommodations by Homes with Hope, Dobin indicated.

In 2010, a town plan to build 12 units of supportive housing for the homeless on the site was withdrawn after encountering fierce opposition from neighbors and several relatives of Joanna Linxweiler, who bequeathed the property to the town.

Nonetheless, the site was recently toured by state Housing Commissioner Seila Mosquera-Bruno who, according to Dobin, reacted positively to a cottage cluster potentially being developed there.

Mosquera-Bruno, joined by Dobin and First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker, also visited a tract of about 2.5 acres off West Parish Road, currently owned by the state Department of Transportation and the subject of a $150,000 feasibility study for potential housing development.

The property’s transfer to the Department of Housing remains under negotiation, so there is no progress on that front to report, Dobin told the meeting.

John Schwing, the Westport Journal consulting editor, has held senior editorial and writing posts at southwestern Connecticut media outlets for four decades. Learn more about us here.