ESSEX – An attorney for a developer planning to build multifamily housing off Saybrook Road said the company will not take advantage of the state’s affordable housing statute to build condos in Essex given the usually adversarial nature of the process.
But the proposal by Greylock Properties to open up the residential zoning covering most of the town to multifamily development has kicked up significant public outcry in the historic and wealthy river town. Current zoning limits construction to a single house on 1.8 acres.
“I just want to make it clear we do not oppose high-density, multifamily housing development in Essex,” said Phil Nuzzo, one of the founders of Save Rural Essex, which started to organize opposition to the change and gathered more than 500 signatures on a petition. “We just want to make sure it’s in the right place.”
A few residents spoke in support of the plan, arguing that some change is inevitable and Essex needs to provide more diverse housing options. But those who filled the Planning and Zoning meeting Tuesday night overwhelmingly opposed opening up the Rural Residence District to multifamily housing.
Bill Sweeney, the attorney representing Greylock, argued that the new regulations as written were not “radical,” and only applied to three buildable lots in town given that the rules would require at least 10 acres for any multifamily developments, as well as access to and from a state highway and at least 20,000 square feet of land for each unit.
Members of the public who attended the meeting on Tuesday said they didn’t oppose multifamily housing, agreeing that the town needs more affordable housing options, especially to allow young people and longtime residents to stay in town. But they said that such development should be built where the town already allows it in the Rural Multifamily district in Ivoryton. The rural single-family neighborhoods are what gives Essex its charm, they told the members of the commission, and what draws people to town.
Others noted the limitations to building dense housing in a rural area on wells and septic.
Maureen Gatti said the town plan of development had been successful so far, noting that the town website boasts its inclusion on Best Small Town in America lists, and that those lists praise Essex’s small town character.
“If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” Gatti asked. “Why are we going and trying to tweak something because someone from outside has come in and asked us? We do need a discussion about affordable housing, but you have areas for that.”
The regulations would require any multifamily development in the rural residential zone to set aside 20 percent of its units as “affordable,” but some residents also questioned how affordable the development would be, and whether the price point would really help out the people who need lower cost housing in Essex.
Sweeney said the ultimate price would depend on interest rates, but the affordable townhouses would sell for about $300,000 to $350,000.
Residents also questioned why Greylock needed to open the door to more multifamily housing in the rural residential zone. The state affordable housing law 8-30g allows developers to bypass most local zoning to build developments with 30 percent of their units designated “affordable.”
An 8-30g project would allow Greylock to build the 48 townhouse-style condos the company proposed to the commission last year even without changing the zoning regulations.
Sweeney said that multifamily developments aren’t feasible in the town’s existing multifamily zone, given the required density of one-and-a-half acres per unit, without access to public water.
“That’s why you don’t see those developments,” Sweeney said. “That’s why you’re at 3.3 percent affordable housing.”
Sweeney said the company discussed the potential of an 8-30g application with the town staff, but he said it’s an approach that neither he nor Greylock like to adopt. Sweeney said he typically urges clients to work with the community to come up with a different solution.
But Sweeney said that if the commission rejects Greylock’s application, they should find another way to allow “economically feasible” ways to build affordable housing. Otherwise, he warned, it’s a “matter of time” before someone else comes in with an 8-30g application the town won’t like.
“I can tell you [Ken Navarro, principal of Greylock], would do the best project he can under 8-30g, but I also know a lot of developers out there who use it, and they don’t care at all,” Sweeney said. “They don’t care what you think, and they don’t care what it looks like.”
Janice Atkinson, chair of the Essex Housing Authority, said there’s more demand for affordable housing than available housing in Essex, but letting the developers use 8-30g instead of a zone change takes away the Planning and Zoning Commission’s power. Whatever happens to the property, it should be affordable, and the commission should have control over the architectural design and setbacks, she said.
“If we don’t there are pieces of property where, whether two years or five years from now, we’re going to be very disappointed when someone comes in and applies for an 8-30g,” Atkinson said.
After a more than two hour public hearing, the commission agreed to wait another month to decide on the application. Commissioner Robert Day said that if the commission did approve the change in regulations, it would be in a modified form.