The threat of snow closed the Westport Library early yesterday, forcing the much-anticipated 8-30g panel to Zoom.
There, nearly 200 Westporters got a cold dose of reality. The innocuously named state regulation, which mandates affordable housing percentages for municipalities — and used by developers to gain approval for much larger market-rate projects — is here.
It’s not going away.
But, the panelists noted, Westport can take proactive steps to mitigate some of its most onerous effects.
The evening — organized by Representative Town Meeting member Nancy Kail, and led by RTM moderator Jeff Wieser — began with a bit of history.
The first 8-30g proposal came 25 years ago, in 1998: 10 units on Cross Street, 3 of which were deed-restricted for 40 years as affordable.
Others followed: 41 units on a small parcel at the Wilton Road/Kings Highway North corner (a rare denial in court). 81 units on Lincoln Street. 19 units at Morningside Drive North.
The infamous Saugatuck Summit development, which began as 55 townhouses on 10 building lots, ballooned to 187 units, and ultimately was settled at 157.
1177 Post Road East — across from Greens Farms Elementary School — was a “friendly” 8-30 go, without battles between the developer, town officials and neighbors.
All told, Westport now has 32 affordable units, created by 8-30g legislation. When Summit Saugatuck and other projects are completed, there will be 108.
Overall — including units built before 1990, when 8-30g was enacted — there are 390 units deemed affordable.
When projects currently in the pipeline are completed, approximately 6% of Westport’s housing stock will be affordable.
State Representative Jonathan Steinberg called the 8-30g regulation “a blunt instrument.” But, he noted, Westport has done “a great job. We’ve built affordable housing, and we’ve embraced an inclusive housing plan.” He called housing “a national crisis.”
Yet the town’s 4-year moratorium on 8-30g proposals expires this Saturday (March 4). At that point, town attorney Ira Bloom said, developers can file applications.
One is already in the works, for 30 Maple Lane in Greens Farms. “The gate will open,” he predicted.
“But Westport is not alone,” Bloom added. “There’s an intense focus by developers on Fairfield County.”
There is, he noted, a true need for affordable housing in the area. But developers also use 8-30 for their own ends.
The regulation makes it almost impossible for municipalities to prevail. Towns have lost 75% of all cases that have gone to court, Bloom said.
And “developers know it.”
Local officials who turn down an 8-30g application must prove their decision was driven by “a significant public interest.” However, traffic, even safety, are not always reasons for denial. (Wetlands can be a reason, however.)
“The process does not make it easy to negotiate once an 8-30g application is filed,” Bloom said.
A questioner asked whether the 8-30g formula includes beds in homeless shelters, like the Gillespie Center. The answer: No.
Units at The Saugatuck — the Bridge Street co-op limited to to buyers below an income threshold — also do not count for 8-30g.
Planning & Zoning chair Danielle Dobin believes the town can reach 10%. But, she explained, “it will take collaboration between town boards, and residents getting behind it.
“Westport believes in affordable housing. What we don’t want is density, or building on wetlands.”
The RTM can play a key role, she told the Zoom audience.
She urged the legislative body to create an affordable housing fund. Using town-owned land, developers could built low-density projects.
One example: Linxweiler House, on Post Road East between Fresh Market and McDonald’s. The historic home there could be renovated, and moved closer to the road. Cluster housing could be built behind it. Homes with Hope could provide supportive services to residents — who would have access to public transportation, almost at their door.
Another possibility, which town officials have explored for several years: the state-owned Department of Transportation maintenance facility on Post Road East by Parish Road West, just east of Walgreens.
Of course, even with funding, finding willing developers is not easy. Developers make much more money on market-rate housing than on affordable units.
It was an informative Zoom evening. Nearly all 200 attendees stayed on to the end.
They — town officials, residents, those who hope to become residents, and developers — will follow the next steps in the 8-30g saga closely.
Beginning Saturday, when Westport’s moratorium officially ends.
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