Multifamily Housing Proposal ‘A Betrayal’ To Homeowners, Essex Residents Say

Image Credit: Robin Breeding

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ESSEX – Discussion over proposed multifamily housing in the town’s largest residential zone grew tense as dozens of residents spoke out against the change at a public hearing this week. 

Greylock Properties, which last year suggested building a complex of townhouses off Saybrook Road, is asking to change Essex’s zoning regulations to allow multifamily housing in the Rural Residence District that covers most of the town and currently requires about 1.8 acres per home.

The idea drew strong opposition from residents, who packed the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting Tuesday to argue the change would alter the character of Essex. Several residents hired an attorney to represent them in opposition to the changes.

“Both myself and numerous other Essex residents invested in our properties on the basis of a zoning plan that assured our property would be within a long-established rural residential zone consisting of single-family homes,” Essex resident Roger Kern said. “These zoning changes, as proposed, would be a betrayal of the public policy that [drew] current homeowners, such as myself, to invest and relocate to this area of Essex.”

The commission voted to extend the public hearing to its next meeting after residents complained they had found out about the proposal on short notice.

In September, Greylock Properties floated an idea for 48 condos at 160 Saybrook Road. The developer’s attorney, Bill Sweeney, said at the time that Essex’s zoning regulations didn’t allow that level of density. 

But according to new regulations proposed on Tuesday, multifamily developments would be allowed in the rural zone as long as the units are built on at least 10 acres, have access to and from a state highway, and have at least 20,000 square feet of land for each unit, Sweeney said.

It would also require any multifamily development to set aside at least 20 percent of the units as affordable housing. According to the most recent state list, Essex has 3.28 percent of its housing stock designated affordable. That is short of the 10 percent threshold that exempts towns from the state’s 8-30g statute, which allows developers to bypass most local zoning to build housing developments with affordable units. 

Sweeney argued the regulation change would work toward the town’s planning goals of expanding the variety of housing options available in Essex, including more affordable housing.

“Greylock is not an affordable housing developer. I’ve worked with them for the better part of seven years, and they have been very reluctant to propose affordable units or use the state [8-30g] scheme,” Sweeney said. “But this provision was added at the recommendation of the commission at our workshop [last year] and ongoing discussion with staff.”

Several residents called the proposal “spot zoning,” since the restrictions in the proposed regulation would limit the possibility of multifamily housing to just a few properties in Essex, including 160 Saybrook Road.

But Sweeney denied this, saying spot zoning is a zoning change “completely inconsistent” with the town Plan of Conservation and Development for the benefit of a single development.

“That’s clearly not the case here,” he said. “This is a text change that has impacts to multiple properties. We obviously wouldn’t be submitting it unless it had a positive impact on the property we have for contract, but it’s certainly not spot zoning.”

He said the requirements for lot size and access to a state highway would limit the possibilities to eight properties – five of which are either developed or constrained by wetlands or slopes, leaving three that could realistically be developed.

Michael Carey, an attorney representing residents who formed the group Save Rural Essex to oppose the regulations, argued a developer could accumulate smaller properties to put together another 10-acre lot, where the proposed regulations would allow multifamily housing.

Carey and residents also noted a multifamily housing zone already exists in town, between Route 9 and Main Street in Ivoryton. 

“It seems the town and this commission has taken great pains to create this map, and I suspect made a conscious decision to leave the Rural Residence zone free of [multifamily housing],” Carey said. 

“I do not think this is a small application, even though it’s only three paragraphs. I think this is a radical proposal,” Carey added. “It’s a radical proposal in the sense that you’re introducing a use into what looks like two-thirds of town that is not permitted there. And I suspect that there were reasons why it was not permitted there.”