CHESTER – Opinions were divided between residents on plans for an affordable housing development at the site of the St. Joseph’s Church parish center, with some voicing concerns for the impact it would have on their neighborhood, and others saying the housing is needed, and likely inevitable.
Connecticut developers Honeycomb and Vestra are under contract to buy 3.3 acres across the street from the church at 46 Middlesex Turnpike, and plan to build 40 units of affordable housing financed by state housing and loans.
Lewis Brown, principal of Honeycomb Real Estate Partners, said the project received a positive initial response from the state agencies in charge of funding, but still needs to be approved for financing and is likely months away from submitting an application to the town.
He said he was hopeful the project could be approved and begin construction by the end of the year or early in 2023, and would likely take a year to 18 months to build.
Brown said a meeting at the Chester Town Hall on Monday was meant to gather feedback from residents about a project the town will have little power to stop, as the developers will apply under the state affordable housing statute 8-30g, which allows affordable housing developments to bypass zoning regulations unless there are concerns about public health and safety.
Brown said the design could change based on comments from the public.
“We’re not the developer that’s going to come here and just avail ourselves of a state statute and say, ‘Hey guess what, take it or leave it,’” Brown promised the residents who filled Town Hall and followed along on Zoom.
Neighbors of the project said they were concerned that the development was much more dense than the surrounding houses, where zoning requires at least half an acre for each – and that the project would increase traffic and noise that would disturb the existing neighborhood.
Some residents also questioned whether the 40 spaces of parking in the project plan was enough for 40 units of housing in a town like Chester where there is limited public transportation. They also raised concerns that the development would push water off the property towards residents on Pratt Street where their basements flood frequently.
Other residents said more affordable housing is needed in Chester, and asked that the design be consistent with the character of houses in the town.
“This is probably going to happen, and we’ve got to make sure it’s designed consistently with something we can live with,” resident John Bennett said.
Steve Caprio, Honeycomb director of development, said the plan is to build 40 units, including: eight one-bedroom units for households making less than 50 percent of the area median income ($43,750), 18 one-bedroom units for families earning up to 60 percent of the median income ($52,000), 11 two-bedrooms for people making up to 60 percent, and three two-bedroom units for people earning up to 80 percent of the median income ($70,000).
The one-bedroom units could have up to two people living in them, and the two-bedroom units could have three.
Chester Zoning Enforcement Officer John Guszkowski said the development would normally not be allowed on the property, which is zoned for homes with at least half an acre of land. But he told residents that under the affordable housing statute, Honeycomb can bypass those regulations unless the Planning & Zoning Commission can prove it will harm public health, safety or welfare.
“If there is sufficient public water, and there is sufficient wastewater disposal, and there is not any major or unusual concerns about fire prevention or traffic, then [it is presumed appropriate], and the town does not have a great deal of statutory authority to prevent something like this,” Guszkowski said.
Ed Meehan, chairman of the Chester Water Pollution Control Authority, said the site is a “green zone” designated for future sewer connections, but it will be up to the developer to find a way to connect to the system and show that it has enough capacity for the new development
The state housing law applies to any town where less than 10 percent of the housing stock is considered affordable by the state. Guszkowski said Chester is currently at 2.2 percent, with 42 of the about 1,900 units of housing considered affordable.
According to the Chester Affordable Housing Plan, there are 500 households in Chester that qualify as low income because they earn less than 80 percent of the area median income, and about 61 percent of them spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
In Chester, 165 households considered “extremely low income,” earning less than 30 percent of the median income, according to the plan.
The developers said the one bedroom units will rent for $1,218 and $1,462 for households earning up to 50 and 60 percent of the area median income, and the two bedrooms will rent for $1,754 and $2,340 for those earning up to 60 and 80 percent of the median income.
“There is a significant need in Chester, amongst the current Chester residents, and there is not a supply,” Guszkowski said. “In case people are concerned there is going to be a mass influx of the unwashed poor, that’s simply a misconception.”
Asked whether the development could give preference to Chester residents when renting out units, Brown said they can’t because they have to abide by fair housing standards above all else.