By Thane Grauel
WESTPORT — Offsite affordable housing units will be used to satisfy local zoning requirements for a development on the Saugatuck River where units are listed online for up to $4.5 million.
Those “affordable” units will be located in a two-story, two-unit house behind 44 Church Lane. On Monday, the Planning and Zoning Commission approved a text amendment so a second bedroom and balcony could be added to the downtown property, as well as a special permit/site plan to deed-restrict the housing units as affordable.
Adding to affordable housing inventory
Although located elsewhere, the units are being used for the 12-condo Bankside House development at 60 Wilton Road to fulfill the town’s requirement that 20 percent of units in new multi-unit developments be designated affordable.
Westport needs to attain 10 percent of its total housing stock deemed affordable to qualify for a state-sanctioned moratorium that prevents developers from skirting zoning laws by using the state’s 8-30g statute.
Currently, about 3.75 percent of the town’s housing is classified as affordable under state criteria. That’s roughly 400 units of housing. About 700 more are needed to reach the 10 percent threshold.
Starkly different: Bankside vs. Church Lane
The Church Lane structure is modest in size and appearance, located in the heart of downtown.
The nearing-completion Bankside development, on the former Save the Children site along the Saugatuck River, is in another league.
Its units are upwards of 2,000 square feet, have 10-foot, 8-inch-high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows and outdoor balconies and terraces.
One unit at 44 Church will be deed-restricted to renting at 80 percent of the area’s mean income.
The other unit, at the request of P&Z Chairwoman Danielle Dobin, will rent at 60 percent of the mean income. Rick Redniss, the applicant’s architect, agreed to that proposal.
That will allow the town to be credited for 3.5 additional affordable units instead of just two.
Dobin noted the two-unit house is downtown, and near public transportation, playgrounds and parks. People just across the street in Bedford Square pay a lot more to live in the neighborhood, she said.
She called the project and the affordable set-asides a win-win.
Text amendment narrowly approved
But others disagreed, for various reasons.
Commission member Amie Tesler said she’s a supporter of affordable housing in every town, but “I am one of those people who doesn’t like it off-site,” she said. “I’m just really not a fan of it. And I wish there was a different way to do it, incorporate it within.”
Member Patrizia Zucaro, who often opposes text amendments to zoning regulations affecting a single property, reiterated that concern.
“Continuing to allow text amendments to benefit only one property owner creates an environment where the community is guessing what our rules are …” she said, adding that the matter should go to the Zoning Board of Appeals.
“We have rules in place, and those rules should be upheld,” Zucaro said.
Dobin said she respectfully disagreed.
“We frequently adopt text amendments when we believe there is a greater public good,” she said.
Dobin floated the idea of delaying a decision while looking into the possibility of adding similar properties in town to the text amendment, and weighing their inclusion on the Historic Resource Inventory.
But that appeared complicated, and Redniss said he’d help draft any such possible text amendment in the near future, but asked that the project at hand move forward.
“This has been a long saga …” Redniss said, noting he was new to the project.
“I feel, not this present composition of commissioners, but I feel that his [developer David Waldman’s] efforts in town have been tortured, in terms of the work he’s accomplished and what he had to go through, the amount of hearings, and denials, and redesigns, and ceiling heights.”
Waldman is the developer of Bedford Square, and other projects along the river near the new condos.
“I’ve been in some of the buildings he’s done, he does a terrific job,” Redniss said. “And he should be encouraged, not discouraged with so many denials, and years, and hundreds of thousands … more than a million dollars, in lost investment doing things.”
The commission’s vote on the text amendment for 44 Church St. was close, passing 4-3, with Tesler, Zucaro and John Bolton voting against.
The vote on the site plan/special permit for the property was 5-2, with Tesler and Zucaro voting against.
Also at Monday’s meeting, the P&Z voted to approve:
- A special permit/coastal site plan for a new single-family home at 6 Surf Road.
- Establishment of an “Other” parking standard for Cajal Academy, a special education school moving from Fairfield to 25 Sylvan Road South. It allows 11 parking spaces at the complex to fulfill regulations.
Thane Grauel is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Westport Journal. Learn more about us here.