Developer Proposes Zoning Change for Essex to Allow Higher-Density Housing, 48 Condos off Saybrook Road


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ESSEX – Saying they want to build affordable housing without bypassing local regulations, Mystic-based Greylock Property Group asked town zoning officials if they would be open to loosening their rules to allow for developing middle-income housing.

Ken Navarro of Greylock, along with attorney Bill Sweeney, pitched the Essex Planning and Zoning Commission on the idea of building twelve, four-unit, townhouse-style condo buildings on a 12-acre wooded property at 160 Saybrook Road.

The location of 160 Saybrook Rd., Essex, where Greylock Property Group hopes to develop a 48-unit townhouse complex if it can convince the Essex Planning and Zoning Commission to loosen its residential zoning regulations. (Town of Essex) 

Sweeney said Greylock was interested in working with the commission to diversify housing stock in Essex to include something other than single-family homes – which make up 76 percent of the town’s housing stock, according to the town’s affordable housing plan.

Essex’s zoning regulations are restrictive on housing density, Sweeney said – making it difficult to build multifamily housing outside the town’s multifamily district between Main Street in Ivoryton and Route 9.

The idea, which Greylock presented last week as an informal discussion to gauge the commission’s interest, would be to allow more density on some large properties with access to a highway within the Rural Residential district that covers a majority of Essex.

Those regulations currently restrict housing to single-family homes, requiring 80,000 square feet – nearly 2 acres – per dwelling unit. Under Greylock’s proposal, someone could build as dense as one unit per 10,000 square feet.

“That’s basically four units an acre, which is still very low, but we think that’s appropriate for Essex because of the nature of the community and the density of surrounding housing,” Sweeney told the commission. “But I also think, most importantly, is the fact that many of these lots don’t have access to public water or sewer, so you need some extra land set aside.”

Sweeney said the proposed multifamily regulations would be targeted to properties that are at least 10 acres – ensuring space for well and septic systems in the absence of public water or sewer, and avoiding a piecemeal approach to affordable housing by building on the single-home lots that dominate Essex’s rural residential zone.

The regulations would also be limited to properties with direct access to a state highway, which Sweeney said would ensure that the additional traffic generated by multi-family would be focused on highways that can handle it, rather than more remote, rural roads.

The proposal would require that any multifamily development granted a special exception under the new regulations to set aside 20 percent of its units for people making less than 80 percent of the area median income – $89,400 for a family of four, and $62,600 for an individual.

Currently, there are only four properties in town that fit the criteria of the proposed regulations, including 160 Saybrook Road where Greylock is hopeful to develop a 48-unit townhouse complex, but Sweeney said that properties could be combined in the future to meet the eligibility requirements.

According to Matt Williams, the architect working with Greylock, the development envisioned for Saybrook Road would hardly be visible to most people because of how heavily-wooded the property is and how the buildings would be spread out.

A preliminary drawing of what a potential 48-unit townhouse development could look like at 160 Saybrook Rd., Essex, if Greylock Property Group can convince the Essex Planning and Zoning Commission to loosen its residential regulations. (Matt Williams)

“They’re small, four-unit buildings that are relatively in-scale with a residential neighborhood,” Williams said. “They’re not 6-, 8-, 12-unit running townhouses. And we’ve tried to keep them up the hill in a manner that they get away from the primary street very quickly, and just utilize the natural features of the site.”

Navarro said the project would be about a $20 million investment, based on Greylock’s previous experience with this kind of project – though it could end up being more with current building costs. He also said Greylock’s primary market would be buyers rather than renters.

John Guszkowski, the consulting town planner for Essex, said this kind of regulation was envisioned by the state about 15 years ago as “inclusionary incentive housing,” as a way to gradually increase affordable housing without a developer using 8-30g to put more units on a property.

Essex included a similar requirement in a special development district the commission approved last December – where any multifamily housing development in the district around Exit 3 on Route 9 would have to set aside 20 percent of its units to renters making 80 percent or less of the area median income, Guszkowski said.

In total, about 34 percent of Essex households earn less than 80 percent of the area median income. About 65 percent of those households pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing, compared to 11 percent of households not considered low-income, according to the town’s housing plan.

Sweeney said incentive housing is popular in towns in Fairfield County that found that any development built without an “affordable” component took them further away from having 10 percent of their housing stock deemed affordable – which is the threshold for being exempt from 8-30g, the state statute that allows developers to bypass local zoning to build affordable housing.

Sweeney said Greylock could propose its Saybrook Road development under 8-30g, but preferred to work with town commissions to change the zoning regulations rather than try to bypass them.

“We think this is a better way of doing it, but yes, we could do this under 8-30g,” Sweeney said. “We could do a lot more units, quite frankly. We could do 100 units if we could do the septic and water for it – which would be difficult because you don’t have sewer and water – but you don’t have any limitations on things like density under 8-30g.”

Greylock hasn’t made a formal application for a zone change, Sweeney said they wanted to make sure the commission wasn’t totally opposed to the idea before moving forward. And if the commission does approve the proposal, Greylock would still need to apply for a special exception approval for the development from the commission before moving forward with that, Land Use Official Carey Duques said.