After Years of Legal Battles, a Scaled-Down Affordable Housing Project Nears Approval in Darien

The lot at 57 Hoyt St. in Darien (CT Examiner).

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DARIEN — It’s been 14 years since Christopher and Margaret Stefanoni first submitted an application to build a three-story, 16-unit development on a half-acre lot near Holmes School under the state’s affordable housing law. Now the couple’s project at 57 Hoyt St. is back for a review by the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission — the final stage in a long and contentious process.

Public hearings held on the original application in 2011 drew opposition from neighbors who raised concerns about pedestrian safety due to a proposed bypass lane to allow traffic to turn into the development.

Citing fire and traffic safety concerns, the Planning and Zoning Commission approved the housing project but with significant modifications: reducing the number of units from 16 to four, as well as decreasing the overall square footage and building height.  The commission also increased the length of the side and rear setbacks and the number of required parking spaces.  

The Stefanonis appealed the town’s 2011 decision in court, resulting in a scaled-down version of the project with a 50 percent reduction in units, one less floor and eight fewer parking spaces. 

The final plan filed by the couple on Jan. 15, which is currently pending before the commission, calls for the construction of eight two-bedroom, two-bath units of approximately 1,600 square feet in size. The housing development is restricted to residents at least 62 years of age, and three of the eight units are state-designated affordable. 

The plan includes 16 parking spaces, instead of the 24 initially proposed, and rear and side setbacks of 15 feet each. The original plan had only 5 feet and 10 feet of setbacks, respectively.  

“It’s a very different plan than originally proposed,” said Jeremy Ginsberg, Darien’s land use director. Ginsberg explained that the commission must now review the provisions for compliance with their adopted resolutions and relevant Superior Court decisions.  

As the plan recently submitted by the Stefanonis is not a new application, there will be no additional public hearings .

No date has been set yet for the final vote on the project. Ginsberg said the matter may be on the commission’s agenda as early as Feb. 27. If the final plan is deemed in compliance with the commission’s decisions and court rulings, he added, then the Stefanonis will be eligible for zoning and building permits. 

“He’s through the commission, he’s through the courts. He’s certainly close to the finish line,” Ginsberg said.

The Stefanonis are no strangers to affordable housing projects in Darien, having proposed multiple 8-30g developments in the past. The 8-30g statute allows developers to largely circumvent local zoning regulations if a percentage of their units are deemed affordable. 

But given his legal battles with the town, Stefanoni isn’t ready to say approval for 57 Hoyt St. — or Hoyt Street Senior Residences, as the project is called — is a done deal.  

“Anything could really happen. I don’t really care. It’s just one of those things. If they want to make it contentious, it will be contentious. If they want to approve it, they’ll approve it,“ he said.  “Nothing in Darien surprises me.”  

Stefanoni said the state Superior Court issued its ruling on 57 Hoyt St. years ago, but that he was too occupied with raising his family to move forward sooner. 

“I just sat on it for a long time. I’ve got 5 kids, I’ve been busy with sports,” he said. “I thought before I die of old age I should probably do something.”

Stefanoni said the political climate for affordable housing has changed a lot in the last 14 years.  

In the years since Stefanoni filed his first 8-30g application, Ginsberg said the town has made significant progress toward meeting the state goal of 10 percent affordable housing. According to Ginsberg, 4.2 percent of Darien’s housing stock is now affordable, compared to only 2.6 percent 10 years ago.

Ginsberg attributes that growth to a local inclusionary housing regulation adopted in 2008 that requires all housing developments in excess of four units to designate at least 12 percent of the units as affordable.  

He added that all new building developments in town, including the Corbin District, Darien Commons, Heights Crossing and 3 Parklands Drive, will all include deed-restricted units, adding to the town’s affordable housing stock.  

Still, Ginsberg admits that “reaching 10 percent is going to be difficult” for a town like Darien, which is densely populated with over 97 percent of its land developed. “But we’re not losing ground, we’re gaining on the 10 percent,” he said. “And we can be a model for other communities.”