Bethel panel settles with home builder

BETHEL -- After a long battle with developer Toll Brothers over a Reservoir Street project, the town's Planning and Zoning Commission has settled with the luxury home builder.

"We did what we thought was best," said Planning and Zoning Commission member Kitty Grant about the settlement, made late last month, which allows Toll Brothers to apply to build a 62-unit housing development on a 22-acre site near the Danbury border.

Grant said the commission had little choice after losing several lawsuits with the developer over its original 2002 proposal to build 128 units on the property, 30 percent of which would have been affordable housing.

"Our backs were up against the wall," Grant said. And because the compromise means construction of fewer than half the units originally proposed, "there will be a lot less pressure on the neighborhood."

Gregory Kamedulski, vice president in Connecticut for Toll Brothers, said he had no comment on the deal.

It involves what appears to be a first for the Danbury area. Since none of the 62 proposed units will be affordable housing, Toll Brothers will owe the town $960,000 to go into an affordable housing trust fund to be established by the Board of Selectmen.

"Maybe Bethel's ahead of the curve," said Jonathan Chew, executive director of the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials. At the request of Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, HVECO will investigate similar affordable housing funds as part of a regional housing market assessment study the organization is planning.

Chew said no towns in the Danbury area have a plan for affordable housing fee payments like the one proposed in Bethel, but a similar fund exists in Stamford and will be part of the HVECO study.

The settlement between the Planning and Zoning Commission and Toll Brothers must still be approved by the Board of Selectmen, which will have authority over the affordable housing trust fund. Selectmen are expected to vote on the matter soon.

"Young people have to get a start and senior citizens need a place to stay," First Selectman Bob Burke said about the purpose of the trust fund.

Though nothing specific has been planned, Burke said the money could be used to develop new affordable housing or to continue the restricted deeds on existing affordable housing when they expire after 30 years.

"It will be used for the betterment of the social environment within the community," he said.

Burke is philosophical about the overall settlement with Toll Brothers. "I think it's as good as this town can get. It's definitely a compromise. ... They wanted to build 128, so this is considerably less."

One settlement issue that must still be resolved is sewer service for the 62 townhouse-style units in 17 buildings. The town's Public Utilities Commission is expected to decide on that by the middle of this month.

A sewer line stops just short of the site in what Bethel's zoning regulations call a Design Conservation District. It is zoned for single family homes on quarter-acre lots. Under normal circumstances -- and without the settlement -- the property likely would be approved for only about 50 homes because of its wetlands and steep slopes.

When Toll Brothers first proposed a 129-unit project -- later lowered to 128 units -- at the end of 2002, there was a large outcry from neighbors on Reservoir Street and nearby roads, such as Saxon Road. Under state law, Toll Brothers could propose more units than would normally be allowed, because 30 percent of the units were slated to be affordable housing.

Many residents wrote letters to the Planning and Zoning Commission or showed up at public hearings to oppose the project. They said the proposal was wrong for the area and claimed, among other things, that the project would greatly increase traffic on an already busy street and could cause more flooding in nearby houses already prone to flooding.

Toll Brothers countered the charges, but in the summer of 2003 both the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Inland Wetlands Commission denied the proposal. What followed were lawsuits by Toll Brothers against the commissions -- and a more recent one against the Public Utilities Commission -- and counter appeals by the town.

Toll Brothers won its case and the counter appeal against the Inland Wetlands Commission and its case against the Planning and Zoning Commission. An appeal by the Planning and Zoning Commission is still pending, as is the lawsuit against the Public Utilities Commission.

As part of the settlement, Toll Brothers will drop all the lawsuits.

"I don't think the town had much choice," said Saxon Road resident Tom Hessler about the compromise. But he's worried about the impact 62 new housing units will have if added to the sewer system.

Last month, he said, "My sewer was overflowing. It took 16 hours to unclog it."

Hessler is also concerned an extension of the sewer system could be costly for the town. "If we don't have the capacity, then what happens?"

But Burke said the 62 units "won't be a strain" to the sewer system.

The fear of increased flooding is another concern for Hessler, who has lived on Saxon Road since 1995. "Ideally," he said, "it would be nice to have a few larger homes, a dozen-high end homes" on the site instead of 62 units.

"This is tough for us," Hessler said about the settlement.

Contact Marietta Homayonpour at mhomayonpour@newstimes.com or at (203) 731-3336.