Selma Miriam: Don’t Sacrifice Hiawatha For Housing

Nearly 40 years ago, a group of women gathered at Selma Miriam’s 29 Hiawatha Lane home. Their idea of a vegetarian restaurant — and feminist collective — became Bloodroot. Today, it’s still around. Miriam’s still involved.

Hiawatha Lane is still around too, and Miriam still lives there — for now, anyway. But the neighborhood is in the crosshairs of a proposed housing development. Miriam sends these thoughts:

Developer Felix Charney is back trying to foist 155 multiple housing units onto a little dead-end street: Hiawatha Lane Extension.

This flawed project was rejected at least 3 times already by the Planning & Zoning Commission, as well as other town agencies.

A rendering of the proposed Hiawatha Lane development.

A rendering of the proposed Hiawatha Lane development.

While the practicality and cost of putting in sewer lines and fixing pump station #2 remains unresolved, and no one has yet  evaluated the assault on inland wetlands in this area of swamp land between I-95 and the railroad tracks, the biggest impact is that the warren of streets comprising Old Saugatuck (the only naturally formed working-class neighborhood of homeowners in Westport) would be destroyed by the increased traffic from 155 new units.

But besides the misery to us locals, imagine the effect at the intersection of Route 136 (Saugatuck Avenue), Exit 17 off I-95, Route 33 (Riverside Avenue) and other roads leading to the railroad station. A nightmare for anyone needing to travel these roads.

So how come this developer, turned down 3 times before, now has the support — worse, the encouragement — of the 1st and 2nd selectmen? Even more questionable is the support of the Westport Housing Authority, which is apparently eager to help finance Felix Charney’s previous financial mistakes by using public funds (taxpayer money) as a bailout. Is this greed or stupidity, or both?

Of course they may say they want to ward off the threat of the state’s infamous 8-30g law, which lets developers build any size housing development they want in defiance of local zoning ordinances, if the local board has rejected applications that include 30% of “affordable” units in the development proposal.  However, any prior existing affordable housing is not counted. So it becomes okay to destroy an historic, working-class neighborhood in order to build 155 units and call 70 units “affordable.”

Hiawatha Lane is a narrow street, filled with homes that are modest by Westport standards. It's accessible only via West Ferry Lane off Saugatuck Avenue, next to the I-95 eastbound entrance/exit ramp.

Hiawatha Lane is a narrow street, filled with homes that are modest by Westport standards. It’s accessible only via West Ferry Lane off Saugatuck Avenue, next to the I-95 eastbound entrance/exit ramp.

This is a numbers game that we — that is, Westport — can never win as long as developers continue building higher and ever higher-end housing. We can never catch up!

But it is incomprehensible that the Westport Housing Authority does not get it, and is willing to sacrifice a well-established, historic working class community and waste tax dollars to support this developer’s project.

And so, as a remedy, I offer a fantasy, a sort of (tongue-in-cheek) “modest proposal”.*

Let’s pretend the wetlands will not be disturbed while the area is over-built. Let’s pretend sewers can be provided (from where? paid for by whom?). Let’s pretend that the beginning of Hiawatha Lane Extension could be “walled off,”protecting Hiawatha Lane, Davenport Avenue, Dr. Gillette Circle, and most importantly, Saugatuck Avenue, Exit 17 and the train station access.

Hiawatha Lane extension is shown by an arrow, on this Google Map image. It's below I-95. The entrance is via West Ferry Lane, which is off Saugatuck Avenue (diagonal road on the right side of the image).

Hiawatha Lane extension is shown by an arrow, on this Google Map image. It’s below I-95. The entrance is via West Ferry Lane, which is off Saugatuck Avenue (diagonal road on the right side of the image).

Let’s pretend we could get Norwalk to change its mind and allow Charney’s development to exit through to Norwalk from Hiawatha Lane Extension through the old Norden property. Alternatively, the development could have its own exit onto I-95, since an access road already exists. Finally, let’s pretend that taxpayers would not be expected to reward Charney’s fiscal irresponsibilities.

Ridiculous? Yes! The best decision would be to turn down this project application again. Keep this kind of building on main roads that already have sewers, traffic controls, and no wetlands.

A big question remains: Why have Selectmen Marpe and Kaner invested their efforts in this project? And why is the Westport Housing Authority blind to the problems intrinsic to helping this particular developer?

Is it greed or stupidity or both?

*with apologies to Jonathan Swift


21 responses to “Selma Miriam: Don’t Sacrifice Hiawatha For Housing

  1. don l bergmann

    I was not aware that the First and Second Selectmen have taken a position in support of this project. I hope and expect that Jim Marpe and Avi Kaner will comment. As, possibly more important is the position of the Westport Housing Authority and Carol Martin. While their desire for more affordable housing units is not surprising, the financial support that is apparently being provided by the Westport Housing Authority needs to be explained and justified. Many legitimate questions have been raised and no meaningful information was provided at the P&Z Commission Pre-Application Hearing.
    Don Bergmann

  2. The negatives associated with this proposed development are so obvious that I can see them from 3,000 miles away. A proposed development like this benefits the developers but not the town. And those charged with responding to this on-again application should remember whose interests they represent. In addition to the obvious – taxing sewer systems, burdening the schools, creating traffic woes and so forth – the whole concept of a wide open community with green spaces and safe places for children to play and dogs to be walked takes a backseat to ‘growth’ that doesn’t benefit Westport. All of a sudden, Westport becomes just another town, indistinct from its neighbors. There are many ways to provide affordable housing while preserving the community but this is not one of them.

    Sent from my iPad


  3. Once again, the town of Westport, the administration and people who handle the enormous grand list, refuse to take responsibility and purchase land to build the affordable housing we need. Instead of taking control of the situation, including the design, structure, and development, we would rather enter into an endless stream of battles in court and out, wasting enormous amounts of time and money hoping the developers will tire of fighting and disappear. Don’t think so. And each time a case goes to court, Westport appears to be an elitist small town with a very large white majority that, as a previous person commented, don’t want “riff-raff” to live among us.

  4. Destroy a working class neighborhood in order to save it. How thoughtful. I look forward to the explanation for this. Soon.

    • Michael Calise

      a working class neighborhood of home owners is a free enterprise engine for individual and family success. Affordable housing is exactly the opposite.

  5. roger Kaufmann

    Under the guise of providing added affordable housing for the community…the transparent motives for this “project” are painfully obvious… given the track record of the people behind it.
    Hopefully a 4th consecutive denial will deter this effort once and for all. Its simply greed- only to be exceeded by blind ambition.
    Vote it down and help keep Saugatuck & Westport a gem of a spot.

  6. Bart Shuldman

    Eventually we all will need to understand that affordable housing is coming to Westport. And we will all have to understand it will be located in places that will upset those nearby. Sorry-unless you are willing to vote to change the leadership and direction in Hartford, it is a ‘given’ that developers will be looking at every area in Westport.

    Your area is now targeted. Good luck.

    • Carolanne Curry

      Your lack of knowledge of this area, of this project, surprises me.
      We know that affordable housing according to CT’s 8-30g is ALREADY in Westport. What is going on here is essentially a drive to break all the rules to build what can’t be built, and that’s this developer’s problem…..
      I’m doing walking tours of this unique neighborhood. Do yourself a favor and sign up! I’d be glad to see you.

      • Bart Shuldman

        Carolanne. I think you read my message wrong. I agree with you regarding developers breaking all the rules. But is that not the problem with the affordable housing rules? Everyone has to follow the towns P&Z laws–EXCEPT when it comes to the affordable housing development?

        The issue is simple but unless we are willing to make change it will not go away. And I am sorry it is happening in this area of town, but we have to understand-there is very little we can do. This time it is affecting the area that has those residents upset. No doubt. But the laws basically allow it.

        At some time, and maybe this time, the development will happen. We can all scream no, but the states law allows it. That is the problem and the facts.

        The solution is easy-change Hartford-allow Westport to include affordable housing built before the arbitrary date set in the rules and we will not see Dan post more of this.

        But if you do not want to make the change needed, then face the fact it is coming and coming to neighborhood near you.

        • Carolanne Curry

          Count the years of land use education we are getting as targeted homeowners in Old Saugatuck. This battle first started for us in 2005 when a guy willingly pays two or three times the market value of a small cape (that is still under the price of a average Westport house ) and does this for 5 or 6 other houses. SOS (save old Saugatuck) forms to fight Felix Charney and we win Round 1.
          Felix comes back in 2007 and SOS again fights the battle before P and Z. SOS wins round 2. Twice now that Charney has been told that’s he’s wrong by way of a rejected P and Z application.
          Not satisfied…..and with an arrogance that is unbelievable, Charney goes for a third try in 2014. I’m sure you wont be surprised that his application was rejected for a third time in a most inglorious way.
          Better that Charney should sell cotton candy, which has more substance than his project plan for Hiawatha Lane Extension.
          So Bert, Felix Charney breaks the rules, has not prepared himself to make accurately and professionally prepared presentations before P and Z , and the residents of this community on the other hand, have done their homework.
          We don’t feel there is “little we can do” to fight Charney because he keeps doing the wrong thing hoping to wear us down and try to fool P and Z..
          Here it is 2016, and Charney is back for the fourth bite. He’s lined up Marpe, Kaner, and the Westport Housing Authority as his latest allies is this debacle. Why? Nothing has changed on the ground: every reason for rejection by P and Z is still part of the application.
          The members of Save Old Saugatuck haven’t conceded. We do not accept what’s wrong. Felix Charney is wrong.

          • Bart Shuldman

            Good luck to you. Charley, while you believe is the issue-is not. It’s the law that allows developers to skirt existing local P&Z rules and laws that is the problem. While you might be successful holding him off, the mole will pop up somewhere else.

            Elect the right people who will change the affordable housing laws. At least allow Westport to count in prior housing before the law was set. And do not allow developers to build to zoning rules others cannot.

            But that is up to you. Solve the problem. The whack a mole will just continue.

            All my best-BART

            • Carolanne Curry

              Charley doesn’t need luck. All Charley and SOS had to do was the right kind of research, extensive homework, stay connected with each other, and determine that this developer has no intention of even abiding by the 8-30g rules, never mind the Westport P and Z rules.
              Is it greed? Is it stupidity? And are his current set of allies being infected by this greed or stupidity?

  7. Bart, affordable housing is fine in the right place – and without using taxpayer money.

    • Where is the “right place”? I agree we should not use taxpayer money. However, we do seem to have a propensity to spend taxpayer money on projects favored by certain special interests, don’t we.

      • Given the situation in which we find ourselves,the right (ish) place seems to be the Post Road.

  8. Cathy Romano

    I can not understand why the town would do something that would cause so many problems for the people who already live in the neighborhood. How in the world can Hiawatha Lane and Ferry Lane and West End too handle all the traffic155 units (with probably 2 cars per house hole). I agree with all the concerns Selma Miriam has. Let’s get real

  9. Ann Marie Flynn

    Carolanne….would you please post the walking times that you’ll be doing.
    You have many readers who might like to join you.
    Thank you.

  10. Bart Shuldman

    Morley. I really enjoyed your first post-change a working class neighborhood to save it. So true. And exactly what happens when politicians make rules without understanding the consequences.

    But the law is the law. And taxpayers will pay. And developers will take advantage and build where they can and what they want.

    Unless….but somehow I do not believe those that complain are actually willing to do what is necessary to fix the law. And you know what I mean.

    But your first post was brilliant.

    • Bart, thanks for your kind words. This law won’t be fixed because it isn’t broken in the view of those who crafted it. The fact that Westport cannot meet the standard without ruinous density IS one of its objectives.

      Think of it as misery spread evenly.

      With that said, I refuse to join you in the surrender caucus camp simply because our own local leadership is riding shotgun on this particular application. Carolanne, I stand with you and your neighbors. Better to have some self-respect and go down fighting than to watch passively from underneath the bed.

  11. Luisa Francoeur

    Would someone please refresh my memory: how can “prior existing affordable housing” rules be changed? Is this something which can only be changed at the state level? Has anyone ever tried to mount an effort to do so? There must be other towns with a similar problem.

    • Carolanne Curry

      Only changeable at the State level, and we are trying to get the State to accept the building constructed before 1990 could qualify under the 8-30g rules. Yes, other towns have a problem: out of 169 towns, only 30 have been able to comply. What does that tell you?