WESTPORT – A plan to build affordable cottage clusters on town-owned land in place of large developments was approved by officials and praised by residents, with the exception of one local family looking to preserve a legacy.
To encourage development in municipalities where less than 10 percent of the housing stock is considered affordable, state statute 8-30g allows housing developers to bypass local zoning laws if 30 percent of their units are state-designated affordable.
But under Westport’s latest proposal, the town would partner with nonprofit housing organizations to build affordable cottage clusters, allowing only those earning less than 80 percent of the state median income – $72,452 for a two-person household – to rent them.
Before the Planning and Zoning Commission greenlit the plan at its Monday meeting, Chair Danielle Dobin said the cottage clusters would not only provide additional housing options for prospective residents, but also move Westport toward the 10 percent affordability marker.
“We can provide the affordable housing that we’re obligated to create pursuant to state law, and we can do it in a way that works better for Westport than these 153-unit projects,” Dobin said.
Planning and Zoning staff said the clusters of 850-square-foot cottages are also in line with the town’s 2022 affordable housing plan, which recommends incentivizing developers to create cottage communities around historic houses to ensure that they are preserved.
During the public hearing, however, one resident argued that the cottage clusters could tarnish the legacy of one town-owned, historic property – the Linxweiler House.
Built in 1904, the house was gifted to the town 42 years ago by lifelong resident Joanna Linxweiler and currently serves as an emergency shelter for Homes with Hope, a nonprofit housing organization.
After Planning and Zoning staff presented the house as one of the 10 eligible properties for cottage clusters, Jason Gutman, a member of the Linxweiler family, pleaded with them to preserve the property.
“Why doesn’t a town like Westport simply respect the wishes of an individual who donated their land?” Gutman asked. “Why, every few years, does this town try to develop or convert this land into apartments or cottages or anything other than what it was intended to be?”
According to Gutman, Linxweiler donated the property to the town in her will under the condition that it is preserved. Her descendants have since opposed town proposals to allow new development on the property, including a 2010 plan to build 12 affordable housing units.
Gutman said his family has no agenda other than to preserve Linxweiler’s legacy. While he personally supports efforts to develop affordable housing, he said, the town needs to look elsewhere.
“Restore it, make it a park, a gathering place, make it a museum,” Gutman suggested. “But please do not destroy Joanna Linxweiler’s home and her land.”
But Dobin assured Gutman that the cottage clusters have not been planned for any particular property. Additionally, she said, new amendments to the proposed regulation would expand the list of eligible town-owned land from 10 properties to almost 50.
At the start of the meeting, Planning and Zoning Deputy Director Michelle Perillie told commissioners that she implemented several suggestions from state and town agencies, which shrunk the eligibility list from 46 properties to 10. Notably, she said the Westport Department of Conservation recommended that they be accessible to the town sanitary sewer, and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection suggested keeping the clusters outside of coastal flood zones.
Dobin argued it is unfair for the commission to place the restrictions on affordable housing when they don’t require them for other developments.
Based on a map of the Westport sewer system, the Conservation Department’s suggestion would mean the town could not build the cottages anywhere north of the Merritt Parkway or in the Green Farms area. Dobin suggested clusters in these areas could instead use a septic system.
“If we’re going to allow people to build a 15,000-square-foot house with 11 toilets, I don’t see why we wouldn’t allow potentially – if the first selectwoman thinks it’s a good idea, and this commission agrees – a five-unit cottage cluster in one of these neighborhoods where there’s septic.”
In response to DEEP’s suggestion, Dobin pointed out that the town recently paved the way for the developers of Hamlet at Saugatuck, a large mixed-use development, to build in a flood zone.
“I don’t see how we would justify allowing, for example, a luxury hotel in a flood zone, but we’re not going to allow the affordable cottage clusters,” Dobin said.
But Mary Young, the director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, backed the DEEP recommendation. Given the increase in flooding in town, she said, Westport needs to avoid development in flood zones, especially affordable housing development.
“This is going to be fantastic if realized,” she said of the cottage clusters. “And I’d rather them not watch their belongings get flooded out.”
The rest of the commission ultimately agreed with Dobin, however, about removing the staff-made changes to the regulations and expanding the eligibility list.
Under the finalized regulation, developers interested in working with the town to create cottage clusters can only build on lots that are at least 0.75 acres and located along main roads like Long Lots Road and Cross Highway. The commission also limited the regulation to allow only five total cottage cluster developments in town.
If approved by the first selectwoman, the regulation will go into effect on Nov. 1, and developers can begin submitting special permit applications to the commission.