RTM Upholds Hiawatha Lane Settlement

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.

Artist’s rendering of one of the buildings at the Hiawatha Lane development.

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.

Fire safety concerns have been a major issue with the proposed Summit Saugatuck development.

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.

Summit Saugatuck’s site plan. I-95 is at the top; Saugatuck Avenue is at the right.

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.

10 responses to “RTM Upholds Hiawatha Lane Settlement

  1. Bruce Fernie - SHS 1970

    and the momentum for Westport to become just another Stamford or White Plains continues.

  2. Michael Isaacs

    The development is practically in Norwalk. So Westport will collect taxes, local businesses around there will profit and few others will ever even see it. Other than the people living close to it, who cares.

    • Alex Wennberg

      Wow great NIMBY attitude Michael. Typical self-centered Westporter.

      The RTM rolled right over here but seems they did not have a choice as the consensus is Westport would lose in court. Which really points the finger at Ira Bloom as the weak link here. That, and a town population that largely does not care since it doesn’t directly impact them.

    • Werner Liepolt

      Westports who care about integrity, honoring commitments, and the community care.

      We may not see the development but we will experience the traffic problems it creates.

  3. People who want to see developments that fit better in a town like Westport should check out the zoning proposal changes that have been brought up in Hartford. While they are not perfect by any means, these proposals permit towns to consider architectural character when approving projects (meaning no metal-sided Stamford-style apartment tracts), and encourage the development of smaller multi-family housing, such as duplexes and ADUs. A lot of this (called “missing middle” housing) is what Saugatuck looks like already.

    Huge developments like this are a result of bad zoning codes and state mandates that pretty much only allow either single family homes on relatively large lots, or huge apartment buildings, and little in between.

    I agree with the comment that this is pretty much in Norwalk. It’s not going to be great for traffic getting on and off exit 17, but a hundred or so cars a day is not likely to be significant in the grand scheme. For the people who complain that Westport is becoming another Stamford or White Plains – the existing zoning code has allowed the entire Route 1 corridor in Westport, minus the immediate downtown area, to become an expanse of big-box stores, abandoned and decaying buildings, and apartment complexes with acres and acres of parking lots and little landscaping or charm. While the apartments are new, the rest of it has been like that for decades. This isn’t a new problem, and you can’t blame it on the handful of developments in recent years.

    The best thing Westport could do to preserve its “character” is to impose much stricter protections for historic structures. This development is not replacing any historically significant structures and is largely hidden from view unless you live in the immediate area. It has no effect on the overall character of town. By contrast, charming, historic homes that contribute to the town’s character are torn down every month by private owners and spec builders to be replaced by cheaply built, nearly identical houses with white siding and black windows that will be obsolete and torn down in a decade or two, when something else is trendy. That’s a far bigger problem for Westport than a handful of apartment complexes in areas of town that have minimal aesthetic value anyway.

    • David J. Loffredo

      When I read “character” to me that’s just dog whistling about the kind of people who might live in these complexes, and not the complexes themselves. There’s nothing inherently beautiful about anything up and down the Post Road, or along I-95.

      The big loss is every time another historic home is removed, that’s where Westport’s character takes the bigger hit. So many big, ugly, generic homes, selling like hotcakes to NY’ers who must never have ridden Metro North before.

  4. Michael Calise

    this area is a B Zone with 6,000 sq. ft. lots which hold home size to approximately 2,000 square feet or less. A much needed zone for middle income family’s who want to have the opportunity to own an equity building home in a free market economy. This is a huge loss for what is left of the local Italian community. It gives rise to the painful realization that the rest of Westport is considered far more important. Actions speak louder than words.

  5. What is the income range in Westport that is considered affordable. Who is in charge of certifying that the affordable units are actually leased by people who fall into the “affordable” category? And, how many of the already built 8-30g residences have their affordable units rented?
    I am just curious.

  6. Chip Stephens, former P and Z chair and resident

    A very sad day for Westport,
    Your officials have abandoned the residents of one of Westport’s only affordable home ownership locations.
    Hiawatha and Dr Gillette housing lots were given by local persons of wealth, back in the mid 1900s, to allow those laborers of limited means, that constructed I-95 and the railroad, to live in Westport, actual affordable housing. All lots have in their deed that they were to remain single family housing lots forever. Since their inception the moderate homes there saw families that became numerous local police, firefighters, tradesmen and restaurateurs. These families grew up in Westport thanks to the charitable foresighted philanthropists of yesterday that did the right thing.
    What Westport has now, after 18 years of defending the folks on Hiawatha and Gillette, taking “points” for people, dislodging many good families that gave so much in decades past. They will have to move to other towns, they will not get a chance to get any of the affordable housing that will replace their affordable homes of modest means. Only 30 percent will be affordable, the other 70 percent will be UMC rental units that will be very profitable. So much for philanthropy.
    I rue the days that this was negotiated with lawyers, not in public as it was for 18 years, the town will be forever be changed by this disregard for their own. I am sorry more did not stand up for those that lived in Westport for decades and gave so much and were the good seed and fabric that kept Westport safe, kept great stores and locations local and grew a group of kids and families that served their town so well.
    Sad day for Westport.

  7. As a former RTM member, member of its P&Z study committee, and 40-year resident of the town:

    This failure of two elected town boards to stand with the appellants is a betrayal of the town’s mission to stand up and defend both itself and its own. Some of the above comments are absolutely to the point. It was a valiant fight. Too bad the town in the end did not stay with it.