Facing a Lawsuit, Developer in Darien Opts for 8-30g Housing

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8-30g is a Connecticut affordable housing law that was enacted more than 30 years ago, then largely ignored.

Until now.

It was written to help people afford housing in Connecticut, one of the most expensive states in the nation. 

Within Connecticut, no places are less affordable than the small, wealthy towns of Fairfield County.

But that’s where affordable housing projects are going up.

It’s happening because demand for housing is high, stock is low, and developers are earning profits even with the 8-30g requirement that 30 percent of the units in a project are rented at rates deemed affordable.

To encourage construction of affordable units, 8-30g says a developer can bypass most local zoning regulations. Towns can stop an 8-30g project only if they can prove it would present significant health or safety concerns.

It’s difficult. Land-use experts say that when towns try to block such projects in court, developers win two-thirds to three-quarters of the time.

So town officials in Fairfield County are amending zoning laws and working with developers on projects that include housing units that more people can afford. Town officials would rather do that than have developers file an 8-30g application and build projects as they please.

Town residents, however, don’t always go along.

In New Canaan, Greenwich, and elsewhere, residents have mobilized to stop developments from proceeding, raising money with online GoFundMe efforts and gathering signatures on Change.org.

In Darien, officials are doing their part. Since 2000, almost one-third of new units built in the town qualify as affordable, Hearst Media reported in December.

Several more Darien housing projects are underway, but one known as Parklands is caught up in court.

A developer wants to rip down his 36-year-old office building on Parklands Drive and replace it with a three-story, 60-unit residential building. 

Last year the Darien Planning and Zoning Commission created a Designed Office Multi-Family Residential Overlay Zone that allows multi-family dwellings in areas previously zoned for office buildings.

The Parklands developer, Bob Gillon, applied for the designation, and the commission approved it, said Jeremy Ginsberg, Darien’s planning and zoning director.

Gillon then presented his apartment project, which residents of Parklands Drive and Fairmead Road strongly opposed. But, in February, the commission approved it.

Last month six Darien residents sued the Planning and Zoning Commission, saying the project is too intrusive. They want the court to rescind the approval and issue a restraining order to prevent Gillon from building the project until the case is resolved.

It’s not unusual for residents to sue the town to try to overturn a zoning decision, Ginsberg said.

“It occurs many times annually,” he said. 

Do the outcomes tend to favor the town? The residents?

“It depends on the situation,” Ginsberg said. “We win some, we settle some, we lose some.”

But 8-30g adds a new aspect to such situations.

Days after residents filed their lawsuit, Gillon announced he will submit an 8-30g application and plans for a new project – five stories with up to 90 units. That’s two stories taller and 30 units more than the original project.

Gillon said he decided to pursue an 8-30g project because it will be at least a year before a judge decides the lawsuit.

“This office building has outlasted its useful life. It’s 33 percent vacant and has been for almost four years. It’s not viable as an office,” Gillon said. “If I can’t build the building I want to build, the one that was approved, I am going to build the other one. With 8-30g, I don’t have to worry about setbacks, height, the number of units or the density.”

So why not file an 8-30g application from the start? 

“I want to build this and I want to manage it and what I designed is a much nicer building than an 8-30g building,” Gillon said. “In an 8-30g, 30 percent of the units have to be affordable – that’s why I can build more. With the other building, only 8 units have to be affordable, so a higher proportion are market rate. That means I can spend on gables, bays, stone on the first floor, to make it nice-looking.”

An 8-30g building, Gillon said, “won’t be ugly, but I can’t afford to enhance it as much as the other one.”

Some builders threaten towns with 8-30g, he said. 

“I’ve heard that a number of developers have gone around and said, ‘Here is what I would like to build. If you don’t like it, I am going to build an 8-30g.’ That is not what I did. I designed a beautiful building. I don’t want to build an 8-30g.”

If the Planning and Zoning Commission approves his 8-30g project, residents can appeal it as they did the original project. But the onus will be on the town to prove the 8-30g project doesn’t meet safety or health standards.

“That means traffic, and whether the sewer system can handle it. It’s very narrow,” Gillon said. “It’s much easier to get an 8-30g through Planning and Zoning.” 

So, while the residents’ lawsuit is in the courts, Gillon’s 8-30g application will go before the town.

Town Attorney John Wayne Fox, the residents’ attorney John Harness, and Parklands attorney Bill Hennessy did not return requests for comment.

Gillon said his project is a good fit.

“On one side I have an I-95 rest stop. On the other side is a 100-unit assisted-living facility. Behind me is a 50-acre nature preserve. I have a residential road on only one side,” he said. “What better place to put multi-family? It’s not like I’m plopping it in Tokeneke, where there are multi-million-dollar homes.”


Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 733-6811

a.carella@ctexaminer.com