By John Schwing

WESTPORT — The bank account has been opened, but deposits can’t be made.

That’s the status of a new “Affordable Housing Fund” established by the Representative Town Meeting last month.

After the RTM approved an ordinance to set up the fund Oct. 3, officials believed the Planning and Zoning Commission could then enact a regulation imposing fees on permits to raise money for the fund.

That, however, is not the case, Planning and Zoning Director Mary Young told the P&Z on Monday. The Town Attorney’s Office weighed in, she said, noting that the RTM, and not the P&Z, is vested with the authority to establish such fees.

So, in effort “to not miss too many more opportunities of extracting” those fees and to start generating revenue for the fund, Young suggested the commission provide guidance to the RTM on what would be “appropriate” fees — since the P&Z staff will have to assess and monitor those fees.

The P&Z staff recommends the fees be imposed on a sliding scale, with lower levies for less costly construction plans and rising for more expensive projects. 

Specifically, Young said, the proposed fees on zoning permit applications would be $2.50 for every $1,000 of estimated construction costs for a project under $500,000 and $5 for every $1,000 in construction costs for projects greater than $500,000.

P&Z Vice Chairman Paul Lebowitz, who also advocated acting on the proposal “sooner rather than later,” said that had Affordable Housing Fund fees been in place this year, it’s estimated about $600,000 to $700,000 would have accrued to the program.

Based on Monday’s discussion, the P&Z plans to formalize recommendations at its Dec. 18 meeting, with the hope the RTM approves the fees in January.

The fund will be dedicated to acquiring land or facilitating construction and/or maintenance of new or existing affordable housing units in town. The concept emerged after several months of review by the Planning and Zoning Commission’s Affordable Housing Subcommittee and various RTM committees to help meet one of the goals in the town’s state-mandated Affordable Housing Plan, adopted last year.

In addition to generating revenue from permit fees, the fund can derive resources from inclusionary zoning fees, grants, donations and loans.

Use of the fund, including investment dividends, would be restricted to affordable housing projects.The fund would be overseen by a new five-person panel.

Several other suburban communities in Fairfield County have already adopted variations of a trust fund to promote affordable housing initiatives, and their primary source of revenue also comes from fees on building and zoning permits.

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.