Westport housing quandary: Affordable need vs. development burden
Published 4:58 pm, Thursday, February 19, 2015
The town is facing a challenge on the housing front. In recent weeks, two proposals for major multi-unit housing developments have been submitted and still others may be in the works.
"These would mean a tremendous change for the town," said Anthony Guinta of George Street, who has been following plans for redevelopment of the Westport Inn site at 1595 Post Road East since they first were submitted. Guinta, a 70-year town resident, lives nearby.
An application to build a 200-unit, five-story multi-family residential community, called Westport Terrace Views, has been filed on behalf of 1595 Post Equities LLC. It would replace the decades-old, 117-room Westport Inn, owned by Ranger Properties, a New York City-based company.
At its highest point, the new structure, built on 3.80 acres of land at 1595 Post Road East, would be 80 feet off the ground. Besides housing units, it would also include underground and first-floor level parking for about 369 vehicles.
"The development would put stress on all town services, police and fire, and increased traffic," Guinta said. Neighbor Linda Hughes agreed.
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Westport Terrace Views proposed to replace the inn, by the numbers:
• Built on 3.80 acres at 1595 Post Road East
• 200 units: 104 one-bedroom units, 68 two-bedroom units, 4 three-bedroom units and 24 studio apartments
• 369-space, two-level parking
• 80 feet above ground level at its highest point
"I wish the entire town would realize that this development will affect everyone, not just those of us living nearby," she said. "Westport is more than just the downtown."
She said the project would force local taxes to rise to provide more services and there would be a strain on the nearby Long Lots Elementary School, with the potential for families with children moving to the new housing development. "It's a vicious cycle," she said.
Besides neighbors, a group called Westport United, which opposes the project, has started an online petition drive, which at last count had about 1,400 supporters.
"Westport United is not against affordable housing or responsible development however this project would overwhelm the community and put incredible pressure on schools, traffic, emergency response, and life safety; resulting in significant public health and safety concerns," according to a statement on the petition site.
But Sheldon Stein -- a principal of Ranger Properties who bought the property in October 2007 -- disagrees.
"The size is bigger, but the traffic and use are comparable with what's there -- there would not be a significant difference," he said. In fact, he said, "many people have called me and think this is a good idea because there is a tremendous demand for housing in town, especially for teachers and firefighters and seniors -- who are downsizing and want to stay in town."
The Westport Terrace Views project, he noted, would use the same sewer and public water services currently serving the inn.
The proposal was filed under the state's 8-30g statute, which allows a developer to exceed local zoning regulations on the size of a project if the town's inventory of "affordable" housing -- as defined by the state -- is less than 10 percent of total housing units. The law also places the burden of proof on zoning officials, and not the developer, to justify rejection of a project.
In the application, 1595 Post Equities LLC said the town's stock of affordable housing, at 2.75 percent, falls short of the "10 percent exemption threshold."
It also says that being on the so called "10 percent list" means the town, "like other municipalities in the region has an acute need for more housing that is available to moderate income households." The town held a forum on the 8-30g issue recently and is currently looking at ways to qualify for a moratorium from the affordable housing law.
Stein says he plans to move forward with the plan even though the application was pulled at the start of the Planning and Zoning Commission's Feb. 5 meeting at the request of his lawyer, Chris Smith, of Shipman and Goodwin.
That was after P&Z Chairman Chip Stephens cited a number of deficiencies with the application. For instance, he said, reports from the state Department of Transportation and Water Pollution Control Authority, on the project's impact had not been included with the application.
Smith could not be reached for comment, but Stein said the application will be resubmitted in compliance with "all the guidelines" outlined by the zoning commission. However, the application wasn't refiled by a deadline set for Tuesday, if the developer wanted the plan to go to a public hearing on March 5. That was something Smith had pushed for when he withdrew the application. The Conservation Commission had planned a continuation of its hearing on the Westport Inn application Wednesday night, but that has been postponed to March 18.
"I think the Post Road development is a done deal -- a foregone conclusion," said Guinta. "But can you imagine something that large on the Post Road?" he added. "It just won't fit in."
He said he feels the developer and town will "end up negotiating some deal."
Guinta, however, feels a 186-unit housing development planned on Hiawatha Lane Extension might not get the sewer extension it needs to proceed, effectively killing the proposal.
Gloria Gouveia of Land Use Consultants would readily agree. She represents 26 neighbors of that project proposed by Summit Saugatuck LLC who have organized under the name Save Old Saugatuck.
"There has to be an established need for an extension and there is none, not even to connect the existing houses on those 19 lots, said Gouveia, a former Westport zoning enforcement officer. She said there has to be "multiple septic system failures" in an area for municipal sewers to be considered, adding, all the septic systems in the project area are "working perfectly well."
She asked if there's no need to connect 19 homes to the sewer line, how can the developer justify adding more. "You can't make that leap," she said.
If the housing project can't connect to a sewer line, she added, the developer "can't do anything," adding that she feels the development on Hiawatha Lane "is just not going to happen."
Summit Saugatuck, LLC, recently withdrew its application to the Water Pollution Control Authority for the sewer line extension, but plans to resubmit it, according to Timothy Hollister of Shipman and Goodwin, the lawyer for the developer.
That will be done following "further study of the town's sewer system and its capacity," Hollister said Monday. However, he couldn't say when that study would be completed. The weather, he said, has hampered collecting the information needed.
Felix Charney -- president and CEO of Summit Development, a long-time town resident and member of the P&Z from 1983-85 -- declined comment when reached at home this week, referring all questions to Hollister.
The Hiawatha proposal also went before the P&Z for a lengthy hearing in January at which commission members heard testimony from the town's public works director and others about the impact the project would have on an already overburdened sewer pump station. No action was taken.
Gouveia said that, despite some talk that the Hiawatha Lane project was filed under the state's 8-30g statute, it never was. "The only thing that's been filed is the sewer connection application," she added.
As for the Westport Inn, Stein, who is not a town resident, said that when the property was purchased, the plan was to keep it the same -- as a hotel.
The idea to demolish the building and replace it with housing units evolved and the first discussions took place about a year ago, he explained.
"We've invested a lot of money in the property and wanted to keep it running as a hotel," he said. "But, you know, we finally decided it would be more economically viable to level it and put in housing."