In a one-sided vote on a two-decade battle, the Representative Town Meeting last night upheld the Planning & Zoning Commission’s decision to settle litigation regarding a 157-unit housing development on Hiawatha Lane.
The RTM decision was 30 to 2, with 1 absention and 1 recusal. Twenty-four votes — 2/3 of the entire RTM — would have been needed to overturn last month’s P&Z decision to settle 3 lawsuits brought by the developer, Summit Saugatuck. The special RTM meeting was held following a petition by over 60 electors.
This is Peter Gold’s report on last night’s special meeting, held via Zoom. He is an RTM member writing for himself, and not in an official capacity.
The RTM’s second meeting of the month considered overturning the Planning and Zoning Commission’s decision to permit Summit Saugatuck to build a 157- unit housing development, including 47 affordable units, at Hiawatha Lane. The Planning and Zoning Commission approved the development as part of a settlement of 3 lawsuits brought by Summit.
The suits seek to overturn the P & Z’s earlier denial of the project, revoke the town’s moratorium from the requirements under Connecticut statute 8-30g (which permits developers to disregard most town zoning regulations so long as their developments contain at least 30% affordable housing), and eliminate the town’s ability to approve sewer connections for developments.
The town has already been to trial on all 3 lawsuits. Absent approval of the proposed settlement, decisions in all 3 cases are expected shortly.
Town attorney Ira Bloom explained there were 2 main questions for the RTM to consider. First: Should the town continue to control development by retaining its moratorium and the right to approve sewer connections? Equally important, he said, is how to “best balance the interests of the Hiawatha Lane neighborhood against the interests of the town as a whole.”
He stated that fire safety is the key issue in the case seeking to overturn the P & Z’s denial of the project. Summit’s proposed development meets all the requirements of the fire code. However, the P&Z initially rejected the proposed development on the advice of fire marshal Nate Gibbons, who felt additional safeguards — particularly a second access road to the site — were needed.
Bloom said that recent cases where towns have sought safeguards over and above fire code requirements, including another Westport case involving a proposed development on Cross Street, have been decided in favor of developers. Courts have held that meeting the fire code requirements is enough to let the development proceed. Bloom said that the town does not have a high probability of winning this case.
Summit also challenged the 4-year 8-30g moratorium the Department of Housing granted the town 2 years ago. In March, the DOH notified the town that it intends to revoke the moratorium because it can no longer justify the moratorium points given for the Hidden Brook housing development. Without those points the town would not have enough points for a moratorium.
Based on settlement negotiations, the DOH told the town it is now “tentatively on board to keep the moratorium.” If the settlement is not approved, Mr. Bloom said the town will probably lose the moratorium, exposing the entire town to 8-30g affordable housing applications at many other sites.
The last suit challenged the current requirement that town approval is required for all connections to its sewer system. Westport denied a sewer permit. Summit sued and won; the town appealed and prevailed; Summit then appealed to the state Supreme Court. As with the other 2 cases, a decision is on hold pending the RTM’s decision on the proposed settlement.
Danielle Dobin and Paul Lebowitz, the Planning and Zoning Commission members most involved in the settlement negotiations with Summit, explained the consequences of losing the lawsuits if the settlement is not approved and the benefits of the proposed settlement.
Though all P & Z commissioners sympathized with the plight of the Hiawatha Lane area residents affected by the proposed development, Dobin and Lebowitz said the P & Z felt the consequences to both the neighborhood and the town as a whole of continuing to oppose the development in court justified the settlement.
Under the settlement, all lawsuits would be dropped and could not be reinstated. This would preserve the town’s moratorium and ability to approve sewer connections, both crucial for controlling and guiding development in town.
Summit would build 157 units instead of 187 units, including 47 affordable units; eliminate one building from the project; include several 3-bedroom units for families, and provide additional fire safety features. It would also repair roads in the area, fix a culvert to eliminate flooding, and preserve open space.
A major concern of Hiawatha Lane area residents is the increase in traffic generated by the proposed development. Dobin explained that courts do not consider traffic congestion when deciding 8-30g cases. First Selectman Marpe promised that the Board of Selectman, in its role as Traffic Authority, would work with the residents and the state Department of Transportation to take steps to mitigate the traffic.
It was noted that the Office of State Traffic Administration would also need to approve the development, as it would be considered a major traffic generator. However, OSTA approval would not be sought until after the settlement is approved or the lawsuits are resolved. If OSTA requests changes as a condition of its approval it is likely Summit would make such changes.
Several Hiawatha Lane area residents spoke against the settlement. They felt the P & Z did not negotiate hard enough; traffic and pedestrian safety issues were ignored; the existing affordable housing in the area should be preserved, and that residents displaced from their homes by the proposed development should be given priority for the new affordable units.
Dobin and Leibowitz explained why they thought the settlement was the best deal that could be obtained, pointed out that traffic and pedestrian issues are not considered under 8-30g, and that federal fair housing laws do not allow for preferential placement.
RTM members expressed sympathy with the Hiawatha Lane area residents, but felt their plight was outweighed by the town’s need to preserve the 8-30g moratorium and keep control over sewer access. Members also expressed a desire for the town to “do something” to assist the residents who would be displaced by the proposed development.
Many expressed their feeling that the town failed to adequately plan to meet the requirements of 8-30g over the past years as other towns — notably Darien and New Canaan, which have received several consecutive moratoriums — have done, leaving Westport in its current situation.
It was also pointed out that the settlement would have to be approved by the court, giving concerned residents one last chance to make their concerns heard.
Voting against the proposed settlement were Lou Mall and Carla Rea. Arline Gertzoff abstained, while Matthew Mandell recused himself.