Mike Ott, an engineer for the developer, presents plans to the zoning commission (Credit: CT Examiner/Werth)

Zoning Hearings Are Final Hurdle for Mixed-Use Affordable Housing in Old Saybrook

in Old Saybrook

OLD SAYBROOK — A proposed mixed-use affordable housing development in Old Saybrook, Hanford Commons, with 14 apartments, space for a restaurant, office and retail has passed the town’s architectural review board, a review by the regional health district and the planning commission with favorable recommendations. Now, the project sits on the desk of the zoning commission, the final hurdle before the project receives the green light from the town. 

“The only way we could say no, was if it was a matter of public health and safety,” said Bob Friedmann, chair of the zoning commission, at a public hearing on Monday. Friedmann addressed his comments to the large number of concerned residents on Lynde, Whitewood and Elm streets that would become neighbors to the new development.

“8-30G is more powerful than the regulations in our book,” said Christina Costa, the zoning enforcement officer for Old Saybrook, referencing the state regulation that mandates 10 percent of a town’s housing be affordable. “Unless the town has 10 percent of housing set aside as affordable, we put our zoning regulations to the side when dealing with these applications.”

Today only 2.6 percent of housing in Old Saybrook meets the definition of affordable — when rent and utilities together account for no more than 30 percent of annual family income. That number includes the Saybrook Station apartments completed in 2016. Hanford Commons, if approved, will add 5 additional apartments to that count. 

For neighboring residents, the prospect of three apartment buildings that are not required to comply with zoning regulations, seems absurd.

“We’ve only ever had TJ’s and the hairdresser’s, how did this all suddenly become commercial?” said Lorna Mitchell, a 39-year resident of Whitewood Street. “There is nothing to make noise now and we are suddenly going to have all these people moving in… being able to look out their windows at our street — which has been perfect.”

Although there are a few businesses on to side streets like Lynde and Elm, off the Boston Post Road, when the town drew up zoning regulations in 1948, the east side of Lynde street was zoned as a B2 business district. It’s the residences that have been grandfathered in, said Costa. 

“What’s confusing for residents to understand is that just because the houses were there does not make it residential. They were existing residential houses in a business district,” Costa said.  

Parcels along Route 1 are zoned for commercial use. Parcels off Route 1 and behind the commercial district are generally zoned “Residence A,” with the exception of the east side of Lynde street and the triangle formed between Elm, Boston Post Road and Lynde.

“We looked at the full length of the street, and at what it may look like in the future, as truly a mixed-use area,” said Mike Ott, professional engineer with Summer Hill Civil Engineers & Land Surveyors, P.C. “Our idea was to make sure that what we designed and the improvements we proposed incorporate a streetscape and provide more of a sense of place.”

The developer and principal at Hanford Commons LLC, Michael Picard, is proposing parking spaces, decorative street lighting and sidewalks all as public improvements that will benefit the town.

The two greatest concerns voiced by residents were lighting and privacy. Jesse Moodey, whose home would be behind the proposed development, and Melissa and Salvatore Rapacciuoli whose home would be across the street, said they do not want bright lights from the parking lot shining in their windows at night, or that new apartment residents would be able to see into their homes from their second story-balconies.

Addressing these concerns, Ott explained that the proposed lighting was chosen to minimize light pollution and would not extend beyond the property line. 

“The lights are dark sky compliant and no light goes above the fixture,” Ott said. “There is no glare, no ‘up lighting,’ it is a soft light and they will be on a photocell timer to go off in the middle of the night.”  

Similar lights have been installed across Old Saybrook.

“4000 Kelvin is what most towns did when they put in street lighting. It’s extremely bright and almost blue. As a town we chose 3000 Kelvin and installed 1000 of them and in total only received two complaints,” said Carl Fortuna, the First Selectman of Old Saybrook.

In terms of privacy, the landscape architect and developer has chosen to plant arborvitae rather than install a fence as several neighbors have requested, including Donna Peterson who lives directly next door to the proposed 8-unit apartment building.

“The arborvitae will reach a height of about 40 feet and provide better privacy than any 6 or 8-foot fence,” said Abigail Adams, the landscape architect working on the project. “An arborvitae screen is an appropriate screen for a residential area.”

Despite their assurances, Peterson left the hearing after saying, “My privacy fence has been replaced by arborvitae. The new people can still peek through the arborvitae right into my sunroom. There should be no public questions or anything because they’re going to do what they want anyway.”

Although bringing in more rental and affordable options to town is a goal for Old Saybrook leadership, Friedmann recognized the concerns that come with change.

“We will apply the magnifying glass and look at all the things that we can look at, but change is a thing that has to come when you have an application to change something,” Friedmann said. “It’s going to change now as 8-30G or sometime soon in the future.”

The proposal for Hanford Commons is being reviewed as two separate applications. One for the 8-30G apartments and the other for the restaurant, office and retail space. If one application fails the other will as well, Costa said.

“At this point we’re looking at the outstanding comments to be addressed. Drainage issues from the town engineer and the traffic study,” Costa said. “Zoning could deny the special exception use and approve the housing use, but then neither project would go forward.”

The hearing will be continued at 7 p.m. on Monday, August 19. 

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