LEDYARD – A flood of hiring at Electric Boat is changing the shape of the housing market in southeastern Connecticut, as young hires fill rentals. Just north of Groton, it has brought Ledyard to a crossroads where the town will need to decide how much it’s willing to change its character as a semi-rural suburb dominated by single-family homes in order to draw in new residents.
Almost half of all housing development in Ledyard happened before 1970. Electric Boat, Pfizer and Dow Chemical grew in the 1950s and 1960s, and hiring at those companies drove thousands of people to Ledyard – growing it from a rural, farming town of less than 2,000 people, to a suburb of more than 14,000.
“When [Electric Boat] grew, we were one of the go-to towns where people desired to live in and work at EB, and I think that can happen again,” Ledyard Mayor Fred Allyn III said.
But the same housing stock that drew people to town in the middle of the 20th century doesn’t align with what many of the new hires at Electric Boat are looking for. Ledyard’s housing stock is predominantly single-family, with most homes having three or more bedrooms – reflecting a time when people started families when they were younger than is common today.
Allyn said the results from some newer apartment complexes in Ledyard have been promising, as many of those units have gone to young Electric Boat hires. He said Ledyard needs more of that type of higher-density housing — and the zoning code rewrite the town is about to undertake and a planned sewer extension can move the town in that direction.
What does Ledyard want to be?
Allyn said there are residents who want to see Ledyard stay the way it is, but he said he believes the town needs to bring in new residents. When he was born in 1970, the town’s population was about 15,000 people. Now, it’s about 16,000 – so it hasn’t grown much in the last 50 years, Allyn said.
Towns need to grow to survive, Allyn said. It’s crucial for economic development, especially for a small town not connected to a major highway, which won’t attract much outside commercial investment. There are only so many times one person can shop at a particular boutique shop, and the town needs more people to support its businesses, he said.
Ledyard also needs more people, according to Allyn, who don’t have children in school to move in, building up the grand list without adding to what is the major expense for towns – education. It’s important to have families with children, and Ledyard has no shortage of them right now – about a third of households include someone under 18.
But the reality is that one- or two-bedroom apartments or duplexes — which Allyn hopes will bring in more young people without children — cost the town less than three- and four-bedroom houses with children.
“It’s kind of a pipeline of people,” Allyn said. “We need to get younger people in that pipeline with one- and two-bedroom units, and as people age out, or pass away, or move into retirement, maybe some of those younger people have an opportunity to move into the neighborhood setting.”
Allyn said that he thinks with the right housing mix bringing in that pipeline of young people, Ledyard could increase its population by between 2,000 and 3,000 people. That could help fill out more commercial development in Ledyard Center and along Route 12 in Gales Ferry – though he said there’s a limit to how much will be developed in Ledyard because of its location.
But if a town doesn’t have the type of housing that people who work in the area are looking for, people aren’t going to move to that town, and aren’t going to spend money and support businesses in that town, Town Planner Juliet Hodge said.
What decisions a town makes comes down to what people living there will support. If Ledyard opts for a new direction, the town has an opportunity to bring in new residents, as young Electric Boat hires overflow the housing market in Groton and New London.
“There’s a huge opportunity right now that [the town is] just letting pass,” Hodge said. “Look at how fast Groton and New London managed to get some housing developments, and I’ve never seen New London move that fast in the 30 years I’ve been in the region.”
Zoning code rewrite aims for more duplexes
Hodge has been working on revisions to the town’s zoning code that she said would make it easier for developers to build higher density residential housing other than three- or four-bedroom houses. The Planning and Zoning Commission received Hodge’s application at its meeting in May, but has not started the public hearing yet.
The town’s zoning code makes building duplexes in particular more difficult by requiring a special permit, Hodge said. And the zoning for multifamily developments doesn’t allow enough density to be profitable for developers, she said.
“It’s a lot of things that reduce the number of units you could get on a piece of property,” Hodge said. “And given building prices and all these issues we’re facing, the developers need more flexibility than what these regulations give them.”
Allyn said the kinds of developments that can be made easier through zoning regulations – namely duplexes and accessory dwelling units – could be what Ledyard needs to bring in younger people who aren’t ready to buy a three-bedroom house.
“Part of the problem I think we’re having right now is that housing is incredibly expensive. It’s got to be at least on par with the [real estate] run-up in 2006 and early 2007,” Allyn said. “But our inventory is next to nothing, so it makes it very difficult to grow a population when you don’t have housing stock for them.”
Economic development always goes back to a town’s zoning, Hodge said, and zoning codes can be a barrier to development, or they can facilitate it. If the zoning establishes a mindset of saying “no,” first to developments, developers could look elsewhere, she said.
Allyn said the town’s zoning code is badly in need of a rewrite, and Hodge’s experience revising the codes in North Stonington made her a good fit for what Ledyard was looking for in a planner.
“For 20 years, I was in commercial real estate, and if I look at the zoning regulations as a professional, and I can’t make heads or tails of them, you can imagine what it’s like for the average citizen,” Allyn said.
8-30g brings missing middle, but gives town limited control
Because of the state’s affordable housing laws, some of that development will come without zoning changes. If developers see a strong enough market for it, they can use the state 8-30g statute to bypass local zoning controls to build housing with some affordable units.
There have only been a few 8-30g applications in Ledyard in the past, but there are two in the pipeline that the Planning and Zoning commission could see formal applications on in the near future – a 40-lot subdivision on Stoddards Wharf Road and a 4-lot development on Whalehead Road.
In April the Planning and Zoning Commission heard “informal” presentations for both projects, which Hodge said would generate the exact type of housing that Ledyard needs to attract new, young residents.
Under the statute, zoning commissions can evaluate these proposals only on public health and safety concerns, not traditional zoning criteria like lot size and setbacks.
Hodge said the proposals have smaller lots and likely smaller setbacks than would be allowed under the town’s zoning code – and they also don’t include open space that the town’s regulation usually requires for new subdivisions.
Ledyard isn’t Avon or Westport, where the average income and home values are much higher, Ledyard Planning and Zoning Chair Tony Capon said. If Ledyard is going to expand its tax base, it isn’t going to be through expensive, single-family houses, he said.
“This kind of development is going to allow us to provide more affordable housing, which I think is a better fit for Ledyard than trying to model ourselves after the wealthier communities in Fairfield and western Hartford County,” Capon said.
Sewers create opportunity for apartments in Ledyard Center
It’s not just zoning that limits multifamily developments – infrastructure is a major limit in many smaller towns like Ledyard, which doesn’t have an extensive public sewer system.
A plan to use federal and state funds to extend a sewer main from Ledyard High School to Ledyard Center would open up some parcels of land around the commercial center to multifamily housing, Allyn said.
The owners of the parcels around Ledyard Center School already have early plans to build multifamily housing once the sewer is extended, Allyn said.
“It’s kind of hard to believe, but the center of town doesn’t have public sewer,” Allyn said. “It has public water, but no sewer, and terrible grounds to support septic systems.”
Allyn said he’s hopeful that development would attract the people Ledyard needs to balance out its tax base – younger people who are looking for the kind of walkable area that the town has turned Ledyard Center into by redesigning the streetscape with sidewalks and street lamps to connect the stores along that strip.
“Sometimes people are nervous about growth, New Englanders are steady people,” Allyn said. “But I really think we need to see some growth, and I’m hoping with [Electric Boat], the zoning rewrite and the sewer line – this will be our opportunity.”