DARIEN – After a year of opposition, the Darien Planning and Zoning Commission this week narrowly approved a project to convert an office building into a 60-unit apartment complex.
People weren’t happy.
After the commission’s virtual meeting ended in a 3-2 vote to allow the project at 3 Parklands Drive, several people who were watching unmuted themselves to express their frustration. One threatened to sue the commission. Others used profanities. One insulted the head of the commission, who got up and left the meeting before it ended.
In New Canaan, pushback against the planned conversion of a 10,000-square-foot single-family home on 3 acres into a 102-unit apartment building includes a GoFundMe drive to raise money for a legal battle.
Within five days, the GoFundMe effort targeting the project at 751 Weed St. raised more than $22,000 toward the $25,000 goal.
The project site is in a single-family neighborhood where residents are upset about the recent construction of The Vue, a 99-unit apartment complex.
The Weed Street project would be only blocks away, organizers wrote on the GoFundMe page.
“This housing project would be catastrophic to the neighborhood – destroying its charm, snarling it in traffic, and crushing its property values,” the page reads. “If the developers succeed, they could come to your neighborhood next.”
Such resistance to multi-unit housing is “universal” in Connecticut, said Erin Boggs, executive director of the Open Communities Alliance, a nonprofit organization working to build a coalition to support housing opportunities for all people.
“There is tremendous pushback to mixed-income housing in lots of towns in Connecticut,” Boggs said. “We see it time and again, in town after town.”
It’s roiling now because housing is a hot topic, said Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns.
One reason is a recognition that a 30-year-old state law, 8-30g, written to encourage development of affordable housing, isn’t working in Connecticut, one of the most segregated places in the United States.
Many Connecticut residents can’t afford to live where they work, thanks to the high cost of housing and zoning policies that block creation of affordable units.
“The law has been controversial because towns say it gives developers a lot of leverage to put affordable housing in areas that may not be best suited for it,” Gara said.
Another reason is the formation of groups such as the Open Communities Alliance, founded in 2013, and Desegregate Connecticut, organized in 2020 to advocate for housing policies that promote racial and economic justice.
“They have pushed to bring litigation against communities for not meeting affordable housing goals, and to pass legislation requiring towns to allow certain types of affordable units,” Gara said.
A third reason is a provision in a 2017 law requiring towns to devise plans for how they will develop affordable housing. The plans are due this spring, Gara said.
“So a lot is happening all at once,” she said.
Developers are looking to take advantage, proposing projects statewide, particularly in Fairfield County.
“A lot of developers want to build there,” Gara said. “They’re not going into the more rural areas of the state because they don’t see the need or the profit in creating multi-unit projects in those places.”
That sets up the battles – residents vs. developers.
Darien residents say the Parklands Drive apartment complex, which will include eight affordable units, is too big, especially since it’s adjacent to a large, recently constructed facility for seniors. The project will increase traffic at an already busy intersection and harm nearby woods, residents say.
New Canaan residents say the Weed Street development would tax the sewer system and cram 300 people into a lot now occupied by a single home, ruining the character of the neighborhood.
Still, around Connecticut “there are bright spots” for affordable housing, Boggs said.
“Housing that’s been built includes some that’s been occupied by those who opposed its construction,” Boggs said. “A lot of the community opposition is coming from a set of myths about what we mean by affordable housing.”
Towering complexes of government-sponsored housing are things of the past, Boggs said. Her group is part of a coalition, Growing Together Connecticut, that is writing a “fair share” zoning bill for the state Legislature to consider.
“Every town would plan and zone for its portion of the affordable housing need in its region,” Boggs said. “This says, ‘Town, here’s your number. Your neighbor has a number, too, so it’s not all on you.’ We hope to have the language for the bill in the next few days.”
Gara agreed that there is “good news” for affordable housing.
“The plans towns are developing will provide us with good information about housing needs and the barriers towns face in meeting the needs,” Gara said. “I think it will create better understanding, and provide a positive way for towns to move forward.”
In the meantime, the number of GoFundMe legal-defense donors is 104 and counting.
“Save New Canaan’s Weed Street from developers,” the page reads.