Local Zoning Makes National News

ProPublica — the non-profit investigative news outlet — has published an in-depth look at the interrelated issues of affordable housing and zoning laws in Connecticut.

Much of the piece — produced in collaboration with the Connecticut Mirror, and headlined “How Some of America’s Richest Towns Fight Affordable Housing” — focuses on Westport.

It does not paint a pretty picture.

The story begins with the example of the new houses being built on the former Daybreak property, near Merritt Parkway Exit 42:

A dirt field overgrown with weeds is the incongruous entrance to one of America’s wealthiest towns, a short walk to a Rodeo Drive-like stretch replete with upscale stores such as Tiffany & Co.

But this sad patch of land is also the physical manifestation of a broader turf war over what type of housing — and ultimately what type of people — to allow within Westport’s borders.

After a lengthy description of the zoning battles that followed — without mentioning traffic and related issues — the piece notes:

Welcome to Connecticut, a state with more separate — and unequal — housing than nearly everywhere else in the country.

This separation is by design.

In fact, the Daybreak project was never about affordable housing. It was planned as 55-and-over housing.

Construction fence at the Daybreak development.

It talks about Westport’s “affordable housing” stock (as defined by state regulation 8-30g), without mentioning that the statute does not include dwellings built before 1990.

In Westport — where gated residences overlook the Long Island Sound and voters solidly backed Democrats in the most recent state and presidential elections — private developers have been allowed to open just 65 affordable housing units over the last three decades. Public housing rentals operated by the local housing authority have also grown at a snail’s pace, with 71 new units opening in this charming small town of 10,400 homes.

The story implies several times that racism is a factor in local housing decisions.

“I think the vestiges of our racial past are far from over,” said former Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who left office in early 2019 after eight years and regularly butted heads with General Assembly members who wanted local officials to have even more authority over housing decisions. For minority residents striving for safe and affordable housing, the state has “denied the opportunity that we allowed white middle-class aspirants to access,” Malloy said.

It includes quotes from Planning & Zoning commissioners and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe — though not always with context.

There are descriptions of zoning battles over developments like 1177 Post Road East (which is already built and occupied) and the Hiawatha Lane project (which has been battled over for years).

An artist’s rendering of the 4-story rental property at 1177 Post Road East.

Particularly striking: A photo of the Community Gardens, next to Long Lots Elementary School. The caption implies that the town bought the land and turned it into gardens simply to prevent construction of “multifamily housing for low-income residents in (that) heavily residential single-family section of Westport.”

There’s much more. It’s a long piece — and it will get people talking.

Click here to read the entire story.

27 responses to “Local Zoning Makes National News

  1. Jack Backiel

    $8,000 a month for a studio??? Sign me up!

  2. Alan Hodge

    I can confirm that the words attributed to me are correct but are applied out of context. I wish the author could have taken the time to observe the discussions pertaining to affordable housing when the Commission was reviewing the 2017 POCD. For me the objection to 8-30(g) is and was not an objection to the principle but rather the fact that it hands a very large stick to developers who could not care less about affordable housing except as a means of forcing through lucrative developments that would otherwise be rejected. I am pretty sure that this article will be seized upon by some developers who cynically subscribe to notion that Westport is against the principle of affordable housing and the developers are simply the champions of those in need of affordable housing. Frankly, if any of them were true believers, their applications would have a significantly greater proportion of affordable housing than the statutory minimum which, during my tenure, was never exceeded by any developer.

  3. Matthew Mandell

    This was a sad piece of journalism where only one side of the issue was pushed.

    Dan corrects Daybreak, thanks.

    Where in the world is the other side of the Hiawatha issue? 10 small affordable homes are to be destroyed to line the pockets of a developer to make 130 market rate condo units in 5 4-story apartment buildings. If I was this journalist, I’d have left out that 50 units of affordable will be included. But where is the question of the disregard for the surrounding residents whose homes would be dwarfed and whose property values would plummet? Left out.

    As for the racist card, that’s old news. One developer looking to do an 8-30g placed into the P&Z record a book called “The Color of Law,” all about how zoning is racist. I took great offense to this and publicly asked for an apology. Needless to say, I didn’t get one. Westport may be rich, but IMHO it is not racist.

    Criticism is reasonable and a free press should be defended, but fair, unbiased and impartial reporting must be expected.

    • Jeff Rilling

      Sorry Dan and Matthew – Westport is very racist. Ask any person of color who lives/has lived here, and they will tell you how very racist it is. Racism does play into affordable housing too. The humble opinions of the white majority mean nothing when speaking of racism. It’s real and it is rampant in this town.

      • Michael Calise

        Give me one credible example Mr. Rilling

        • Mary Cookman Schmerker

          Thank you Michael. I cried when I read this article. You and I both grew up in Westport when everyone who lived there was respected. I refrained from commenting sooner because, unfortunately, I no longer live in Westport. I could cite the many things that were done in the 50’s and 60’s that promoted equality. I’ll just stop with my Thank You for speaking up on behalf of our remarkable town.

      • Complicated issue. There are, of course racist people in Westport and everyplace else. There are also plenty of hypocritical white liberals here who looked down on working class white people in places like South Boston and Queens as racists, while enjoying the seclusion of Westport’s “invisible barriers” against such urban ills as crime and bad schools.

        BUT…housing density is not linked to affordability in the way the article claims.. It may be true that relatively few nonwhite people can afford to buy in Westport, but the same is true in Manhattan (and much of Brooklyn) where density is sky high. Also, note that Fairfield, which has traditionally been much more multifamily0housing-friendly than Westport, is only slightly more diverse.

        The developers who claim virtue for “affordable” housing are trying to scam us — and the authors of this article fell for the scam hook, line and sinker as evidenced by the assertion that 8-30g developments “set aside 30% of a project’s units for poor people.” Few if any “poor people” ever live in these developments!

  4. Peter Blau

    Surprise. Surprise. The only thing that’s different from any other big media expose is that it covers something we know about — so we know what’s wrong and what’s been distorted.

    Sort of like when the NY Times wrote that Bridgewater’s office building was kept hidden down a long private road as it were a top secret Willy Wonka chocolate factory. They neglected to mention that the OTHER side of the building is plainly visible from the road bordering the property.

    Amusing to learn that Save Westport Now is positioned as some sort of Klan type conspiracy to keep non-white people out of the town I seem to remember that this organization was founded by the late — and very left wing –Sidney Kramer. He’s probably rolling over laughing in his grave.

    By the way, did Chip Stephens really say the originally proposed Daybreak development would “ghettoize” Westport. If not, he should correct the record.

  5. And further, why is it racist or elitist or bigoted to want to keep the SUBURBAN town one moved to, more than less “rural”. “affordable” housing under 8-30g, tends to involve larger, more densely occupied buildings which anyone who likes Westport would rather not see in town….regardless of who lives there.

  6. Jack Backiel

    In the mid 1960s, a guy named James Rouse quietly bought up farmland about 28 miles north of Washington, DC. He built a town called Columbia. He wanted to make sure it was economically balanced and fairly integrated. He purposely built neighborhoods where poorer people could live, and do live! He built the town so everyone lives on a dead end street. There aren’t any individual churches; All churches are inter-fath, so different religions share the same building. No street name has a similar street name in a bordering town. Every street name is unique in the sense that you can’t find that street name in any of the adjacent towns. I suggest you google and research Columbia, Maryland!

    • Jack Backiel

      I’m going to add to my comment. Columbia isn’t small. It has at least four high schools, and one, Howard High, has over 2,000 students! I have no idea how Rouse could pull this off in the 1960s, buying farmland surreptitiously and building a town from scratch!

  7. Joshua Stein

    A quick skim was enough to see how skewed the article is. Do we have any stats on how much affordable housing stock there actually is in Westport? Not some made up # that is only after the arbitrary cut-off date?

    • There’s a hell of a lot more than reported; it just doesn’t meat the crazy federal standard…it simply meets the standards of them that’s happy to live there. We call ‘em “elderly” or illegal apartments but they sure serve the purpose bitched about in the article.

      • Joshua Stein

        yup it would be nice though to have some facts that can be shared with folks to show how many apartments and how much affordable housing there really is in westport.

  8. Bob Stalling

    From the article- “Public housing rentals operated by the local housing authority have also grown at a snail’s pace, with 71 new units opening in this charming small town of 10,400 homes.”
    I would like to ask the author of this article, Jacqueline Rabe Thomas, to describe what she means by “charming small town”.
    Please explain what it is that makes you believe it’s “charming”, and why you would use the word “small” with charming…

    • Morley Boyd

      Bob, while you’re at it, please ask her what a “suburban cornucopia” is.
      I think it’s making me hungry. Should I feel guilty?

  9. Mary Cookman Schmerker

    So, here I am commenting again. From the reports I read and from my own experience being in Westport in May of last year, incidents of flooding have increased. Areas that never used to flood did. Climate change might be cited but, and this is a big but, excessive concrete plays an important part. Water needs to drain and large facilities with their huge footprints and adjacent parking lots are a factor to be considered. Where I live now building continues at a rapid pace as well as…..you guessed it……flooding. It is far more complicated than just building “affordable” housing. It is building responsibly

  10. Kate Mozier-Tichy

    “Affordable housing” in this area isn’t even affordable. Yes, it may exist, but the prices in this area are so goddamn high, that they are still out of most people’s price ranges. The reason more white people are able to buy here has to do with the whole history of the United States. Because our country institutionalized racism non-white people have a much harder time moving up classes. Yes, you all may want to keep the town “the way it is”. But the way it is right now is an enclave that keeps others out. I have lived here my whole life and I have never experienced anything differently. This area is a bubble, most people in the world do not even have access to half of what this town offers. I’m sorry, but I do want to spread that around.

    • Dermot Meuchner

      I agree.

    • Mary Cookman Schmerker

      You have a valid point that I agree with about our history. However, the same types of issues exist in almost any “bedroom community” close to a major city. Check out Mahwah ,N.J. or Ridgewood, HoHoKus or Alpine.
      Look at Plano, Texas close to Dallas or Palo Alto, California.
      Beware of unscrupulous Real Estate developers. They know how to twist arms, make convincing arguments and grease just the right hands. Be proud of your Zoning Commission for standing up to them. The developers are really only interested in their own pockets.

  11. Nelson Thomas

    Chip Stephens: “To me, it’s too much density. It’s putting too much in a little area. To me, this is ghettoizing Westport.”

    If you watch P&Z hearings, you know he’s a bully and mansplainer. But he couldn’t have said this. Please.

  12. Larry Weisman

    I think the takeaway from the Pro Publica piece is that while those of us who live here disagree about and try to define “the character” of Westport, to the rest of the world its “character” is rich, exclusive and insufficiently sensitive to the plight of surrounding communities. While the article was overstated and unfair in some respects, there is much to be learned from it about how we are perceived by others.

    • Yes, Larry, but should we give a shit about how we are perceived by others if we know the perception is wrong, in large part?

      • Larry Weisman

        Yes Dan, we should. I am not prepared to say that the perceptions of others are wrong in large measure. While you are certainly entitled to your point of view, so are they. Once you concede – as I think you must – that Westport is an unusually wealthy town with large lot zoning which all but assures that it will stay that way, then you have to ask whether it has responsibilities to the larger community and what it might do to increase diversity for its own benefit as well as that of the region.

        • NYT tomorrow has article on Orange CT. Orange makes us look like Detroit; should Orange residents be self conscious about living in La La Land, or should they relish their bucolic surroundings and attempt to keep them?

  13. One of the problems with the 8-30g statute is that all the affordable housing has to built after 1990. There are many instances of affordable housing (built by the town) before that date — Canal Park, the Saugatuck (does the trailer park count?), plus lower-priced single and multi-family units. The town was pro-active in that regard, but they are not included. I’ve heard that it is the towns upstate that are “trying to give it” to the Fairfield County towns.