Carolanne Curry: Don’t Turn Hiawatha Community Into A Commodity

Alert — and worried — “06880” reader Carolanne Curry writes:

I am trying to understand how the strong and resilient community of Old Saugatuck finds itself under siege for the 5th time, by a developer who wants to build a building he shouldn’t be building, in a residential area he should be building in, and (as a topper) he wants the Town of Westport to give him public sewer access for his proposed 155 apartments on Hiawatha Lane Extension.

All this building on a nondescript street carved out of wetlands and swamps, bounded by roads, railroads and highways, so that a natural cocoon of 8 streets slowly shaped this community.

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.

Felix Charney of Summit Saugatuck LLC is the developer with this fixation to build on Hiawatha Lane Extension. Surprisingly, despite his failed efforts, he is making his 5th request for public sewer access before the Planning and Zoning Commission tomorrow (Thursday, July 7, 7 p.m., Town Hall auditorium). This time, he is appearing with the active encouragement of the 1st and 2nd selectmen.

I’m curious how Charney and Westport Housing Authority chair David Newberg got to be “building” partners on Hiawatha Lane Extension? When in 2015 did the town, through the offices of the 1st and 2nd selectman, invite and encourage the formation of a Charney/WHA partnership? Why would WHA accept such a contentious role in further alienating residents of Old Saugatuck?

Why would the 1st and 2nd selectmen resurrect such a poorly conceived proposal for 155 apartments? It comes with the same problems that existed in 2005. There is no sewer. Has anything changed?

And why make WHA complicit in the destruction of a community that is an authentic model of affordable, workforce housing, exactly the kind of housing for which WHA advocates? Housing in Old Saugatuck is the direct result of its history with the railroad, the Saugatuck River and the construction of I-95.

Old Saugatuck is a community. Felix Charney would make it a commodity.

A rendering of the proposed Hiawatha Lane development.

A rendering of the proposed Hiawatha Lane development.

On an even more critical note, when did our Town Hall leaders plan to tell the residents of Old Saugatuck that they were no longer on the side of preserving the precious heritage and homes of the community, but had given their allegiance to Felix Charney? Was this what voters and taxpayers had in mind from their leaders?

In the David and Goliath scenario that will play out tomorrow, before the P&Z with this developer once again, the residents of Old Saugatuck call out to their neighbors, friends and supporters to come to Town Hall. Be a presence and a voice with us, and for us.

——————————————

1st Selectman Jim Marpe replies:

Felix Charney put forth a sewer extension request last year related to his proposed development that received a negative recommendation by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Earlier this year, Mr. Charney presented a pre-application proposal for his Hiawatha Lane properties that differed from the previous year by incorporating a joint venture with the Westport Housing Authority.

Westport sealHe has now presented another sewer extension request related to that latest proposal. Because that request is in process, I cannot comment on the merits of this proposal outside of public session. The sewer extension request and rationale will be discussed following the town’s standard policies and procedures tomorrow in public session. That will be the time for the public to hear more about the proposed plans, to comment, and to have an open dialogue with the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The sewer extension request will ultimately be heard by the Town’s Water Pollution Control Authority in public session, which will afford another opportunity for dialogue. Because I am a member of the WPCA that will hear this sewer application, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on this proposal outside of the WPCA public hearing process.


I offered the Westport Housing Authority a chance to reply. They declined to comment at this time.

23 responses to “Carolanne Curry: Don’t Turn Hiawatha Community Into A Commodity

  1. Sharon Cribari-Saccary

    Why don’the they all leave Saugatuck alone? I used to live on Hiawatha lane along with family and friends it is a great little neighborhood. If part of the baron’s land is good enough for dogs then why can’t the other part be good enough for people who need housing? And whether the town believes it or not Westport NEEDS affordable housing.

  2. John Patterson

    Thanks for sharing this information! I can’t comment on the technical elements of the project with respect to water, sewer access, and demands on services.

    But TRAFFIC, that is something to be concerned about. There isn’t a part of town that isn’t choked at certain points in the day and to think we are adding 155 families with another 1.7 cars per household in an already congested community is something to seriously look at.

    Westport has become overbuilt and the small town roads are not capable of accommodating the big cars from the thousands of McMansions that line our streets and neighborhoods.

    If this proposal offers abundant low income housing, bike paths for cyclists and easy access to free public transportation, then it might make sense. Let’s consider a project like that to offer less advantaged people an affordable housing option in our town – without adding 300 new fancy cars on the roads!

  3. Can someone explain what the Westport Housing Authority does and how it had acted over the years? Is this a change in it’s behavior?

    I assume that the town is now enabling this project because it ignored the State’s affordable housing requirements, which hasn’t been tackled over the 25 years that it’s been law.

    • Here is information from the town website on the Housing Authority:

      “The Housing Authority consists of five electors, one appointed each year by the First Selectman for five year terms and until their successors are appointed and have taken office.

      “Having the powers and duties conferred or imposed by law on Housing Authorities, Westport’s Housing Authority is responsible for the operation of public housing located within the town. It is the body through which federal and state funds are channeled to provide publicly operated low and moderate income housing for the community.

      “All policies are set by the Commissioners and an Executive Director is employed to carry out these policies, serving as functional head of the Authority and acting as liaison between the residents of the projects, the Department of Economic and Community Development of the State of Connecticut, and town government.” Here is the link: http://www.westportct.gov/index.aspx?page=175

      And here is more, from the town website’s “Affordable Housing” page: (http://www.westportct.gov/index.aspx?page=68):

      “There are several types of “Affordable Housing” within Westport, listed below:
      Westport Housing Authority
      5 Canal St
      Westport, CT 06880
      (203) 227-4672

      “Westport’s Housing Authority is responsible for the operation of public housing located within the town. It is the body through which federal and state funds are channeled to provide publicly operated low and moderate income housing for the community. Available openings are filled from a waiting list, with need and affiliation with Westport the primary considerations.

      “The Housing Authority operates the following four facilities:

      “Hales Court consists of 78 units with one, two, and three bedrooms.

      “Canal Park is for seniors and disabled singles and couples of any age. It consists of studio and one-bedroom apartments, between 450-500 square feet. Water is included in the rental fee; but no other utilities. The Housing Authority Office is located at 5 Canal Park.

      “Hidden Brook is located at 1655 Post Road East. It consists of 39 1, 2, and 3-bedroom homes. It is intended for low and moderate income families who pay a fixed rent. Utility charges are not included in the rental fee.

      “Sasco Creek Village, also located at 1655 Post Road East, consists of 35 mobile homes. The majority are two bedrooms. Tenants pay a fixed rent. Utility charges are not included. Most have two bathrooms and a washer-dryer hookup.”

      • Got it. Good info Dan. So the WHA is involved because they need to come up with affordable housing (as Peter Blau says below). And so they have targeted this project as doing that, and will likely agree to the sewer extension to make that happen (as I think sewers are the one thing that can stop and 8 30-g). I guess it has to go somewhere, by law, because the town ignored the law for 25 years already.

        Unfortunately, I recall Matt Mandell’s math that the 30% affordable set-aside for one development doesn’t actually go very far in terms of closing the town’s overall gap, while the developer gets his leverage and tax breaks. – Chris Woods

        • Bart Shuldman

          Chris–the town did not ignore the law for 25 years. Projects like Gault have affordable homes. Also, the town does not develop housing, the town responds to housing development.

          Westport along with many, many towns in CT face the issue of 8-30g. Allowing developers to skirt P&Z regulations creates the issue we now face. And making matters worse are the courts who have rules in favor of developers across CT. If Westport fights this development it will be costly, very costly and there is a very good chance we lose.

          The best outcome we can try to gain is to try and work with the developer to make the most out of the project. As we have witnessed, Charbet will not go away. At some point Westport has to face the ‘sad’ fact that based on this ridiculous law, Westport cannot stop this type of development.

          That is why I question taxpayer money for a study that will not do anything to stop this development. CT is broke!!

          The real solution to all this is to change the law. Let Westport count all the affordable homes built and stop the ability for these developers to ruin a town by not conforming to P&Z rules.

          • Bart, I’m hard-pressed to understand how the town did not ignore a law for 25 years that now is being used (as intended) as a punitive lever to ruin one of the town’s few traditional and affordable neighborhoods. It seems the definition of not planning.

            The 2007 Town Plan for Conservation and Development paid lip service to a then 15-year old law, recognizing the situation, but did nothing about it.

            Basic math shows that any development with a 30% set-aside doesn’t make any meaningful progress. The numbers have been staring us in the face for decades and they are dire: https://06880danwoog.com/2016/02/07/affordable-housing-westport-by-the-numbers-2/

            Sacrificing Hiawatha doesn’t make meaningful progress towards the mandate. But again, the law was clearly designed to use private developers to penalize towns that do not plan (see a 2001, 10th anniversary review of the law by one of its authors http://digitalcommons.law.wne.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1161&context=lawreview ).

            Losing such a neighborhood, which WHA seems intent on making happen (otherwise they would not be involved) is a terrible consequence of not planning, and now telling us we have no choice. – Chris Woods

  4. Peter Blau

    Carolanne –

    I’d guess the town’s interest is all about meeting the 830-G affordable housing mandate. I suggest the best way to fight this is based on traffic vs. preserving “Old Saugatuck,” which is essentially gone already. Imagine the impact of potentially 300 cars (2 per apartment) going at least twice a day through that single access road.

    The owners of the relatively modest homes in this subdivision should be asking why the apartments are not being consideted, say, for Hermit Lane, Turkey Hill Road, or some other enclave of multimillion dollar homes

    • Jerry MacDaid

      I would guess that the cost of acquiring the acreage to build the apartments was much less on Hiwatha Lane than it would have been on Turkey Hill Road. Not saying it is “fair” but even the WHA has to look at how much bang they can get for their buck.

    • John Patterson

      Peter – exactly! I am not opposed to affordable housing and fee strongly that this type of housing development enhances Westport. The traffic in Saugatuck will be unbearable!!

  5. Larry Weismam

    Summit’s development proposal should be deferred pending completion of the study for which Rep. Steinberg has secured a state grant.

  6. I am grateful to Representative Steinberg for securing the state grant to study the impact Summit’s proposal would have on our roadways, the burden to the septic system, and the schools — just to mention a few things.

    • Bart Shuldman

      How ‘horrible’ is the use of taxpayers money to perform a study regarding the impact of a housing project regarding a law (8-30g) that was passed to stop towns from prohibiting affordable housing development? With Steinberg-you cannot make this up.

      Dianne, Westport will lose in a court of law trying to stop the development based on the projects ‘burden on schools. roadways, or use of septics’.

      Change the law–but please stop using taxpayer money for a study that will have no impact on the eventual court ruling if Westport gets sued.

      From an article:

      Connecticut has a very strong tradition of local governance, one of the strongest in the country, so that idea was absolutely untenable. In the 80s the General Assembly formed a Blue-Ribbon Commission to address Connecticut’s affordable housing issues. One of the stated purposes of this commission (and John Papandrea, then-Commissioner of Housing, testified to this before the General Assembly) was to head off the chances of a Mt. Laurel decision (making a town rewrite their entire body of zoning regulations) coming out of the Bridgeport/Fairfield County situation and eliminating or severely limiting local land use control. One of the solutions they came up with, which Mr. Papandrea called a “sugar-coated pill” for towns, was 8-30g.

      SO WHAT IS 8-30G?
      8-30g is Connecticut’s version of what’s called “the builder’s remedy.” Normally, a developer needs to prove that, whatever it is they want to build, it complies with local zoning regulations. If they do prove that, they’re entitled to a permit. If they want to build something that doesn’t comply, they need to lobby the zoning commission to change the regulations, and in that situation, the zoning commission can simply say yes or no, and the developer is entitled to nothing. If a town has zoning regulations that, in good faith or bad, keep out affordable housing, this is a problem for an affordable housing developer. They won’t comply with the existing regulations (for density or other reasons), and if they ask the commission to change the regs, the commission can simply say “no.”
      So if a town does not have enough affordable housing (defined as less than 10% of their total housing stock), 8-30g lets the builder remedy the affordable housing situation. Set aside 30% of your units at prices or rents affordable for low- and moderate-income people, and the developer doesn’t need to prove anything. Instead, the town is forbidden from denying the application unless they prove that the denial is necessary to protect a public interest that outweighs the need for affordable housing. That goes back to the Mt. Laurel situation: the town had all these regulations protecting public health and safety and the environment and all these other interests, but always forgot (or “forgot”) about providing affordable housing. So rather than a state agency deciding whether a town’s zoning commission properly weighed and balanced all these different public interests (including affordable housing) in passing their regulations, the court instead checks that the commission did that weighing and balancing on a case-by-case basis.
      Towns hate this. It’s very hard to prove that a denial is the only way to protect a public interest that outweighs the need for affordable housing. As an example from a case, an 8-30g application was denied because one of the roads for the development intersected the town road at the base of a hill, and cars on the town road coming over the hill did not have enough time to see cars pulling out of the development and come to a stop without hitting them. A very clear unsafe traffic condition. But the court ruled that rather than denying the application because of that, the commission could have required the developer to put in a sign prohibiting left turns out of the development. Cars turning right wouldn’t be in the lane of traffic coming over the hill, so they’d be safe from a collision. By prohibiting left turns, the safety issue is resolved. So the court ordered the commission to make that sign a condition of approval, and overturned the denial.

      • Carolanne Curry

        Bart
        I’m sure that you know that there are three conditions that would stop an 8-30g project. I wonder why you didn’t mention the most apparent in this situation. There is no public sewer system.
        Felix Charney has tried four times already to secure a public sewer system, only to have his application rejected.
        So Five-time Felix is back again because he has to show his “money people” some effort.
        Check out his funder, the Grossman Companies, Inc out of Quincy, MA. These are big boys with big bucks, but they certainly want some bang for their bucks.

        • Bart Shuldman

          Carolanne–let me say I hope the development never happens. Dense development in Westport is not good, especially the impact to our schools. Adding many more children to our schools, without the much needed tax dollars to support the additions, will drive overcrowding and eventually higher property taxes. I am sure our senior citizens are not in favor of higher taxes.

          My argument has always been to change the law. The issue that I believe is very unfair to Westport is the date of 1990, set arbitrarily (I believe) whereby Westport has to show 10% affordable housing built after that date. If the law changed to ‘no previous date’ then Westport easily meets the 10% figure. Westport has over 10% affordable homes!! Why is Westport punished for building affordable homes before 1990?

          I find the use of tax dollars to support a study that will have NO impact on the courts decision regarding the building of affordable homes a true waste of everyone’s tax dollars. Please Google Shipman and Goodwin and look at the many court cases where towns lost in their efforts to stop the development despite P&Z concerns, including traffic and sewers. Not only will the study be worthless, but if Westport ends up in court trying to use the study to stop the development, the town will spend a lot of taxpayers money only to lose. If Charney is successful at proving no ‘real’ harm to the town, and the burden is on the town not Charney, he will win. I am sorry to write the reality.

          I find it comical (but very sad) that the area in Westport known for being affordable will be torn down for affordable housing. And please remember the new affordable housing that is 30% of the project cannot be allocated only to Westport residents. It will be marketed in a 50 mile radius to anyone who qualifies.

          Who is winning? Change the law!!!!

          • Carolanne Curry

            Bart,
            You’re right
            It’s delusional for people in Westport to believe they would be first in line, and WHA is wrong to imply they would be.
            The 1990 cutoff is a point to be pursued.

          • Dick Lowenstein

            You make some interesting and valid points. Too bad you can’t make them without going after [Rep] Steinberg. I think you would have more support [Mr.] Shuldman if you avoided ad hominem attacks on people.

  7. Why is the WHA so bent on building more and more affordable “units” compacted on the smallest space possible? Most of the residents in the latest project opposite Stop & Shop are from Norwalk and Bridgeport (not all).
    Seems to me nowadays if you can’t get your project by P&Z invite the housing authority and let them know how many more units they can add to their impressive number of affordable housing units in existence.
    Leave the neighborhood alone. I don’t think our schools need another 1000 kids pop into the system!

  8. Why do we need a grant from the State to reach the same conclusion as the well-tested law of physics: You can’t fit 10 pounds into a 5 pound sack?

  9. Mary Schmerker, Staples 1958

    The increase of traffic in this already congested area is a serious concern. I would suggest that the increase in pavement is another serious concern that should be addressed. This area is close to the Saugatuck River and, as was mentioned in the article, bounded by the railroad and I 95. It contains swamp and wetland areas. Over development can ruin the function these natural areas are designed to handle. Wetlands are the kidneys of an areas watershed, They clean the water, allow some water to be adsorbed and some to drain off slowly rather than run off in a torrent. Wetlands and even swamps are the ecological equivalent of dialysis. We all know that when human kidneys fail, without dialysis a person dies. With out wetlands to perform their natural job areas can and do flood and rivers and streams become polluted. I hope and pray that the city fathers can and will act responsibly making the decisions that are best for the current residents. Developers tend to be interested in their bottom line and not what is truly best for a area.
    I have never heard or read anything that suggests that anyone is trying to keep affordable housing out of Westport. Westport is a well established town and has been for a very long time. There is just not a lot of open land. for dense development.

  10. Dick Lowenstein

    Here’s what he wrote: “How ‘horrible’ is the use of taxpayers money to perform a study regarding the impact of a housing project regarding a law (8-30g) that was passed to stop towns from prohibiting affordable housing development? With Steinberg-you cannot make this up.”