New Westport affordable housing plan earns cautious support
WESTPORT — A preliminary plan to add more affordable housing in town was met with a positive reception, but some cautioned the Planning and Zoning Commission’s involvement.
The commission’s Affordable Housing Subcommittee on Friday discussed a newly unveiled plan to request a portion of land at 900 Post Road E. from the state Department of Transportation to create a townhome community.
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First Selectman Jim Marpe, Westport Housing Authority Chairman Carol Martin, and several members of the Representative Town Meeting attended the meeting.
“Creating affordable housing in Westport is not optional,” Subcommittee Chairman Danielle Dobin said. “It’s something that is 100% percent required by statute.” According to the 8-30g statute, municipalities must have at least 10 percent of all dwelling units qualified as affordable.
Westport currently doesn’t meet that requirement, which means developers can skirt local zoning rules when building new housing if such projects include affordable options.
However, in 2019 the town attained a moratorium, which gives it nearly four years to control its own affordable housing developments. The new plan, introduced at Thursday’s P&Z meeting, looks to establish an 80% to 90% affordable community overseen by the Westport Housing Authority on 4 of the 10.73 acres alongside West Parrish Road.
“If we want to create a situation where we move from our current status — which is being in control of our multifamily development — to being in control for another four years, we need to make sure there is no lapse in time,” Dobin said.
The proposal also addresses one of the greatest barriers to addressing affordable housing in Westport — land. With Westport being almost 99% built, space comes at a premium, sometimes as high as $1 million per acre.
“This means it’s next to impossible to redevelop land other than at a really high price,” Dobin said. “Unfortunately when it’s a really high price, that translates to really high density.”
Commissioners cautioned the plan was only a conversation starter, and a small step in address the challenging state statute. Several residents voiced support for the commission’s initiative commission, including neighbors to the proposed site.
“My overall reaction is it sounds like a great solution to a real problem we have,” said Bill Rubidge, a West Parrish Road resident, adding with guidance and input from the community this could be a positive idea.
Lisa Mann, another West Parrish road resident, said she appreciated the commission for reaching out and allowing neighbors to be involved.
“I just ask that you be mindful,” she said. “I thank you, but I hope we have a lot of opportunities to be a part of the plan.”
Meanwhile, others like resident John Suggs said the proposal could represent a conflict of interest, arguing the housing authority was akin to a developer and that the commission could be giving them an unfair advantage.
“This is an exciting message, but it’s the wrong messengers,” Suggs said, adding he was alarmed because it could result in more lawsuits.
A prejudgement of the application could doom the application to failure, he said.
However, town attorney Ira Bloom noted the state desires commissions to initiate proposals for affordable housing.
“I’m not dismissing the issue at all,” Bloom said. “I think at this point, however, what the commission is doing is still proper.”
RTM member Peter Gold commended the commission for thinking outside the box, but worried about the location.
“This may, in fact, be the best solution to a problem, but I urge you to look at other sites as well,” Gold said.
Marpe, who signed off on preliminary efforts to contact the DOT, said the town has an obligation to address affordable housing.
“The fact more and more of our employees cannot afford to live in Westport is concerning to me,” he said.
In past years, the town attempted to contact the DOT to use the property for a potential bus parking lot, but apparently did not received feedback. With the town’s good relationship with Gov. Ned Lamont, there is an opportunity for better healthy dialogue, Marpe said.
“Let’s try to work together to make use of that property,” he said. “Whether or not it’s this exact slice that we proposed, we have to start somewhere.”