ESSEX – The Planning and Zoning Commission overwhelmingly rejected a developer’s proposal to allow multifamily housing on several properties in Essex’s main residential zone, saying they want to be the ones driving efforts to diversify housing in town.
Aiming to build a partially ”affordable” townhouse complex off Saybrook Road, Greylock Properties petitioned the commission to change the regulations in the Rural Residence District – which covers most of Essex – to allow multifamily housing on certain properties. The rules would have applied to three buildable properties in town.
But after two unusually packed public hearings where residents pleaded to preserve the character of the town’s single-family neighborhoods, the commission voted 6-1 to reject Greylock’s proposal.
Commissioner Mark Reeves said the proposal was a major change to how housing could be built in Essex, noting that the new regulations would apply to about 131 acres. Under the current regulations, about 65 homes could be built on that amount of land, he said, while the new rules would have allowed up to 262 units. Most of those properties would empty onto Main Street in the Centerbrook neighborhood.
“This is more than just a text amendment that’s going to impact people in a minor way and they can go about their business without any problems,” Reeves said.
Reeves said they want to make it possible for young people and those without high incomes to buy homes in the area, but argued that the 20 percent of units designated “affordable” under the proposed regulation is actually more “moderate income” housing.
He suggested the commission draft its own regulations to promote multifamily housing in a way that fits what locals want: To keep Essex a small town.
“Right now, we are responding to an application from a developer, and it is an application for a text amendment that covers multiple properties,” Reeves said. “The truth is, that amendment is written for his purposes, not for our purposes.”
Commissioner David Rosengren was the single vote against rejecting the application, asking the group, “If not now, when?”
“We live in an aging community. We also live in a very high-income community,” Rosengren said. “It’s basically a retirement community, and if we don’t start changing that, if we don’t start adding opportunities for younger people with less opportunity to get into this community, [Essex] will essentially die. You can’t stand still.”
“Save Rural Essex” became the rallying call for residents opposed to Greylock’s proposal, with yellow lawn signs lining roads around town to show opposition. But Rosengren said Essex isn’t rural, it’s already a dense community.
Essex land use official Carey Duques said Greylock’s project wouldn’t lead to a major increase in housing density because a majority of homes are built on lots smaller than current regulations allow.
The single-family zone covering most of the town now requires 1.8 acres per home, but that was a change made around 2000. Before that, the town allowed smaller lots, which is why about 65 percent of homes are on “nonconforming” smaller lots, Duques said.
Commission Chair Russell Smith said he was on the Planning Commission when it raised the lot size to 1.8 acres. At the time, he said he was concerned about too much density, and raising the minimum lot size was meant to slow that down. He said he still has the same concerns.
“I’m in favor of just making sure that we adhere to 2-acre zoning and rural residential,” Smith said.
Commissioner Bob Day said the Essex’s Plan of Conservation and Development calls for more diverse and lower-cost housing, but that those efforts should be directed toward town centers.
After rejecting Greylock’s application, the commissioners voted 6-1 to create a subcommittee to explore how the commission could write its own affordable housing regulations. Rosengren, again, was the lone vote against the action.
“If we don’t do it now, when are we going to do this?” Rosengren reiterated. “My suggestion is, we’re not. Because what happens when you go for more discussions? Everything dies in committees.”