Waterford P&Z Voices Misgivings, Approves Affordable Housing Development

Plans for a Clark Lane affordable housing project in Waterford (CT Examiner)


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WATERFORD – In a scene that has become routine for towns across Connecticut, the local Planning and Zoning Commission enumerated all the reasons why they oppose a housing development, then resigned to the reality that their hands were tied by state law and approved the project.

The Waterford Planning and Zoning Commission voted 3-1 on Tuesday  to approve a partially affordable housing project with 47, three-bedroom units on Clark Lane, over nearby residents’ complaints stretching from traffic and density to drainage and mosquitoes. 

Several commissioners said they were concerned about traffic on Clark Lane and the high density of the project, but town attorney Rob Avena advised the commissioners that they would almost certainly lose an appeal in court if they denied the project.

“If you’re under 10 percent [of housing stock designated affordable], you’re under the burden to pass these applications unless there’s a health and safety issue expressed into the record, with an expert’s testimony,” Avena said. “The problem is the only expert we have in the record is the traffic expert from the applicant.”

The 47-unit complex – which could be stick-built or manufactured homes – is planned for about 8 acres of a property behind a row of houses on Clark Lane, right next to the Clark Lane Middle School.

Norwich-based Kingstown Properties applied to build it using the state affordable housing statute 8-30g, which allows developers to bypass most local zoning regulations to build housing projects with at least 30 percent of the units restricted as “affordable” for people earning below the median income.

For the project to fit under the town’s normal zoning, it would have to apply to change the property’s zone and the setback requirements, but applying under 8-30g means the developer can ignore those regulations, Avena said. 

“Frankly, it’s a terrible statute,” Avena said. “It has a purpose, but it’s the proverbial hit a nut with a hammer. It puts everybody here in a difficult position.”

Neighbors have been opposing the project since it was first proposed last January, arguing at a recent public hearing that Clark Lane is already overwhelmed with traffic, and that adding 47 units with 94 parking spaces would make the road even more difficult and dangerous. 

They also raised concerns about the high density of the project, the potential for it to worsen the mosquito problem, and questioned whether it was really “affordable” at a maximum rent of $1,814 for someone earning 80 percent of the state median income ($91,750 for a family of four), and $1,491 for someone earning 60 percent of the median income ($68,812 for a family of four), according to Kingstown’s affordability plan.

But 8-30g only allows towns to reject a housing project with qualifying affordable units if they can prove a substantial public health or safety concern, and Kingstown’s lawyer Mark Branse argued at the hearing that none of their concerns rose to that level – saying opposition only existed because of the “affordable” units.

Acting Chair Karen Barnett said she didn’t like the project and had been wracking her brain for a reason to deny it, but despite the vocal and passionate opposition from neighbors, there wasn’t any expert testimony to base a denial on.

“[The 8-30g statute] defeats the purpose of having a Planning and Zoning Commission,” Barnett said. “They can come in and don’t have to follow our regulations, they don’t have to do our setbacks, and they don’t have to do anything that we would make anybody else do.”

Commission member Bert Chenard, who was the lone vote against the project after the other three commissioners had already approved it with three votes, said he didn’t believe Kingstown’s traffic study, which residents said didn’t match their experiences on Clark Lane. But the town didn’t have its own traffic study to refute it, he said. 

He said he was also concerned about the density of 47 houses on about 8 acres, but that’s not something the commission can push back on because of 8-30g.

“It’s troubling, but I don’t see a mechanism to push back and prevail in the lawsuit we would inevitably face,” Chenard said.