Developer Drops Lawsuit Against Old Saybrook, Adds Affordable Housing to Plan


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OLD SAYBROOK – A developer whose proposal to build houses on a riverfront property was rejected in 2021 offered a concession to settle his nearly two-year legal dispute with the town – one of the five houses would be designated affordable.

91 Sheffield LLC, registered to Branford builder Mike Picard, returned to the Zoning Commission on Monday to settle its lawsuit against the commission, presenting a concept to build five single-family homes on about 10 acres at 91 Sheffield St., alongside North Cove on the Connecticut River.

In 2021, the commission unanimously rejected a proposal from 91 Sheffield to use a “planned development district” to build four homes on the Marine Industrial-zoned property. 

Then-chair Robert Friedmann argued at the time that the industrial zone was made just four years earlier specifically to prohibit more homes being built in flood-prone areas. The developer appealed, arguing Friedmann misapplied the law and “stifled debate” by dominating the discussion.

Marjorie Shansky, the attorney representing 91 Sheffield, said the developer has since gone “back to the drawing board” in an attempt to compromise with the commission. One of the commission’s points, she said, was that including affordable housing would better reflect the town’s goals, so the developer added a fifth, much smaller home to the plans, which would be designated “affordable.”

Shansky said the one deed-restricted unit accounted for 20 percent of the development, and  wouldn’t be moving the town further away from the state-mandated threshold of 10 percent affordable housing stock to remain exempt from its affordable housing law.

The 8-30g statute allows housing developers to bypass most local zoning in towns below the threshold if their development includes affordable units. Currently, just 2.87 percent of Old Saybrook’s housing stock meets the state’s definition of “affordable.”

“We’re not putting you in a hole, we’re not taking you backwards,” Shansky said. 

Shansky noted there will be a public walking path and kayak launch, and private docks for the homes. The waterfront has limited use because it has a low draft for boats and is part of the safe harbor where ships are brought during storms, she explained.

The Zoning Commission was receptive to the plan, with some commissioners saying they liked the inclusion of the affordable home. The proposal will be set for a public hearing before an official vote.

“I like this plan a lot better than last time,” Vice Chair Geraldine Lewis said.

First Selectman Carl Fortuna, who attended the meeting as an ex officio member of the commission, said he appreciated the affordable component of the new proposal, and that he thinks Old Saybrook has been “incredibly welcoming” to affordable housing compared to its neighbors.

He said he wants to see the proposal move forward because the property has been blighted for a decade, and is in litigation.

“Like I said, it’s either open space or it’s something else,” Fortuna said. “I am relatively convinced that a [Marine Industrial] district does seem to be a little bit improbable here.”

Friedmann, now a regular member of the commission, was the most skeptical and questioned how the proposal was not spot zoning. But town attorney Matt Willis said spot zoning is rare, and that this spot is conducive to a planned development district and fits a residential use.

He also noted that the five units on almost 10 acres would be less dense than one house per acre – a common zoning restriction that commissions “get beat up for across the country,” he said.

“In this instance, this is creating a new entity where the density is actually less than one dwelling unit per acre, and zoning is having to defend the concept of less than one dwelling unit per acre,” Friedmann said.

Shansky countered that environmental protection and “clustering an appropriate amount of development” were the key concerns for the property, half of which is wetlands along the cove.

“It doesn’t overtax the available landscape and preserves the function and value,” Shansky said.