STONINGTON — A newly approved zoning change will allow a large, mixed-use apartment complex and commercial pickleball to be built where the vacant Hoyt’s/Regal Cinema on Route 2 now stands.
After extensive discussion about affordable housing and stormwater controls on Tuesday, the Planning and Zoning Commission approved a Neighborhood Design District “floating zone” for properties at 85 Voluntown Road and 455 Liberty St., owned by the developer READCO of Old Lyme.
The zoning change will allow READCO to propose the construction of four buildings containing 124 multifamily residential apartments, 10,000 square feet of commercial space and 30,000 square feet of recreational facilities on the two properties’ combined 18-acre site.
READCO also owns adjacent properties at 91 Voluntown Road, where Stop and Shop, Northeast Medical Group and Stonington Medical Center are located, as well as the McDonald’s site at 465 Liberty St.
As of a Dec. 19 zoning meeting, the developer had no plan to include affordable housing, according to READCO’s lawyer, John Casey. But at that meeting, commission member Andy Meek asked whether affordable housing could be included in the project.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Jeremy Browning of Trio Properties, a developer working with READCO, said the project could include 25 affordable units through Build4CT, a Connecticut Housing Finance Authority workforce housing program that provides 2 percent loans. The developer can apply for this program once the project is approved.
“The program essentially is a financing instrument that the developer can apply for once a project is approved … and in exchange for a low interest rate loan, essentially $125,000 per affordable unit, they will restrict 20 percent of the housing stock — 25 units in our case — to an 80 percent area median income,” Browning said.
The rent levels are determined by the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, and the size of the affordable units would be spread evenly among the project’s mix of studios through three-bedroom apartments, he said.
“While we can’t commit to providing affordable housing because we haven’t been formally approved by that program, we received an informal favorable determination and we can confirm that that program works for us. And provided we get the approval, we will be applying for that program,” he told the commission.
The loan conditions require keeping the units affordable for a minimum of six years, and the restriction stays in place for the life of the loan.
“But with a 2 percent loan — for our project, it’s $4 million — and most developers are not going to refinance that and put a higher interest rate on it, so that’s how they get more traction,” Browning said.
The affordable apartments will count toward Stonington’s affordable unit count for as long as they are designated affordable, he explained. With 6.07 percent of its housing stock deemed affordable as of 2021, the town remains below the 10 percent state mandate.
Should the loan program fail, Meek requested that the developer restrict a certain portion as affordable — perhaps 10 percent — in return for the approval of the Neighborhood Design District.
Casey responded that nothing in the town’s regulations requires affordable housing.
“If you were to place that stipulation, I think it would be illegal,” Casey said, adding that the developer had done extensive research into the Build4CT loan. “Affordable housing these days is all based on financing, so I don’t think we could do affordable housing with a conventional loan. The money just wouldn’t work. So it would mean the project just would not go through.”
At the commission’s request, the developer agreed to apply for the loan.
Commission Chair Charles Sheehan praised the decision, saying it’s through a “myriad of programs like this that affordable housing is going to make gains in communities like this. … This could be a potential big win.”
When asked about the potential six-year restriction on the affordable units, compared to 40 years for 8-30g projects, Sheehan said after the meeting that they could possibly work with the state legislature to increase the time period. But in the meantime, he said, it was important to address the housing crisis.
“There are so many families that are destitute that I think we have to do what we can do now and get what we can get. If you asked some of these people who are desperate for housing if they wouldn’t take it because it was only for six years, I think they would tell you it’s a blessing,” Sheehan said.
As requested at the December meeting, Geoff Fitzgerald, a principal with Bohler Engineering, also presented an aquifer and groundwater protection plan for the site, modeling the plan using “hydrocad” software and rainfall data.
Fitzgerald said the project will install “low impact development” natural methods — rain gardens, swales, remediation basins — that will connect to the site’s existing stormwater management infrastructure, including two underground detention ponds.
He told the commission that the project will decrease the impervious area by about 4 percent, and that Bohler engineers determined the 20-year-old existing stormwater infrastructure was performing well.
Sheehan said that using current rainfall data in the modeling project’s stormwater system would prove valuable in the next phase of the project.
During public comment, resident Carlene Donnrummo spoke in opposition to the zoning change, warning the commission that an approval could open the floodgates to other property owners in the area applying for multifamily projects. She also said the Neighborhood Design District zone only applied to “villages cores” and that the properties did not meet that definition.
After further discussion, including whether to redefine the Neighborhood Design District zone to include affordable housing in the future, the commission unanimously approved the zoning change.