Woog's World: Examining one of CT's thorniest issues: housing

It seems like the last year has been all COVID, all the time. We’ve been preoccupied with the virus, the vaccine, and now the anniversary.

But amid the disease’s devastation, life goes on. The wheels of government churn. And up in Hartford, legislation is taking shape that could impact Westport in ways as significantly as the coronavirus.

Bills making their way through the General Assembly address one of Connecticut’s longest-running, thorniest issues: housing. The bills are tied in with our state’s long tradition of local control and our centuries-old philosophy that each town knows what’s best for itself. But they collide against the realities of life in 21st century America and changing visions of who or what makes up a community.

Consider State Senate Bill 1024. It would allow at least four duplexes (two-family homes) per lot in any single-family zone, regardless of existing local rules, if it was within half a mile of any town’s primary train station or one-quarter mile from a commercial zone.

That’s the bare bones version. There is much more — and much more to come. Yet concerns for Connecticut’s housing policy is not confined to the state legislature. The courts are considering local control too.

Our town’s lawyers were whacked harshly in a couple of recent rulings. Judges’ strongly worded opinions blasted denials of permits for new housing proposals. In cases involving Hiawatha Lane (the neighborhood wedged between Saugatuck Avenue and I-95 Exit 17) and Cross Street (between Riverside Avenue and Post Road West), concerns about safety, access, density and traffic were brushed aside.

Those decisions touch on “affordable housing” too. That’s a malleable concept, based on incomes, sales prices, rents and market values, all connected to a formula with an arbitrary starting date (1990) for measuring the number of affordable units.

Westport is not exactly a state leader in affordable housing. But a number of units built prior to 1990 are not counted in our total. Our figures are better than some neighboring suburbs. We’re in a moratorium phase now, thanks to recently built units. Rumors are strong though that courts may end that moratorium soon.

Westporters have a long obsession with real estate. Our ancestors saw fertile land, and snatched it from the Native Americans. Their descendants developed farms, neighborhoods, then an entire town. We had more than enough land to satisfy the post-war rush; roads and lanes sprang out of nowhere, nearly all with at least one-acre zoning.

Now — in the midst of another rush — there is no longer enough land. Bidding wars erupt because newcomers “need” room for dual home offices, nannies’ bedrooms, pools, decks and places to play. Space is at a premium. Buyers are willing to pay premium prices for it.

But should privilege always buy privacy? As Connecticut — like the country — becomes more and more economically stratified, do we have an obligation to help solve the housing crisis? Shouldn’t every town, regardless of its history, be asked to add units?

There is no way of knowing who will move into newer, denser housing, of course. Will it be young singles? Older residents downsizing? Municipal employees like educators, firefighters and police officers, many of whom now commute from ever-farther distances?

Besides, how many of these units will really be “affordable”? How many will sell for whatever the market will bear? Those questions loom large too.

Meanwhile, construction continues throughout Westport. New apartment buildings have risen on the Post Road. They’ve had little impact on traffic, but produced a nice uptick in tax revenues. The controversial nine-unit development off Main Street and Weston Road — site of the former Daybreak Nursery — is complete. It’s hidden and quiet. Both developments include a small number of “affordable” units.

Also meanwhile, town officials forge ahead with plans to address our affordable housing gap. For example, talks are ongoing about the state-owned maintenance site near Walgreen’s.

We are not burying our heads in the sand. We know there is a need. We know that legislators and judges are watching what we do.

We know there are NIMBY neighbors in Westport. Sure, we need more diverse housing, they say. Just not here, thank you. We know too there are Westporters who advocate for full, complete, local control. “Don’t tell me what to do,” they say. I sacrificed a lot to move here, and autonomy over our borders is part of the price I willingly pay.

Housing is a thorny issue. Westport has not shied from it. In fact, we created one of the first suburban homeless shelters in the country, and more than three decades later Homes with Hope thrives with plenty of support. But we still don’t know quite what to say or do about housing.

As Westporters, we’re all entitled to our opinions. But state legislators and courts will have their say too. We should all listen closely.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.