Apartments have become major campaign issue in Trumbull
Throughout this year’s local election cycle, it seems one topic has dominated the debate for months — apartments.
Mailers, statements, and accusations of misinformation have flown back and forth, leaving residents wondering why these projects are popping up around town and who they should credit — or blame.
Republican Michael Herbst, who is challenging First Selectman Vicki Tesoro, has been critical of these developments, blaming the Democratic incumbent for approving up to 1,000 new apartments.
He has argued the high-density residences are a threat to the town’s character, and a potential strain on schools, police and EMS capacity. He has also argued some of the apartments are being proposed on prime commercial land.
“In general, I have nothing against apartments, but I do think that we have way too many coming at this time,” he said.
Tesoro has fought back against claims that she has been approving apartment development all over town, issuing a series of campaign mailers and videos arguing that much of the zoning approvals happened during the administration of her predecessor, Tim Herbst, her opponent’s son.
“The mythical 1,000 apartments,” said Tesoro, who took office in December 2017. “The only way to get to that number is including potential projects that haven’t even been proposed.”
Sure thing vs. zone change
One of the major points of confusion for town residents has been the difference between projects approved and those that may be proposed or made possible due to recent zone changes.
Planning & Zoning Commission records show that in June 2017 the panel created a multi-family overlay district, which allowed applicants to propose up to 600 apartments in former industrial zones.
The same night, the commission approved applying this new zone to the property at 100 Oakview Drive, where a 202-unit apartment complex is now being constructed. The Town Council also voted to approve a tax break for the development.
“I think it was 17-1, but it was very bipartisan,” said Republican David Preusch, who chaired the commission until December 2018. “This was in recognition of the fact that the developer was going to incur considerable costs, there were office buildings that needed to be torn down.”
About a year later, in late September 2018, the zoning commission gave its approval to 128 units of senior housing across the street, at 101 and 109 Oakview Drive — a project now under construction. The commission also approved 199 units on Reservoir Drive at the site of the former Henderson lumber yard. Both projects took advantage of the new multi-family overlay district.
Since then, the commission has approved several zone changes that would pave the way for more development, although specific projects have not been proposed and would need to be approved individually.
A week after approving the second Oakview Drive apartment complex and the Reservoir Drive building, the commission approved a change to Westfield Trumbull mall property to a mixed use design district that would allow a developer to pursue construction of up to 260 one- and two-bedroom units on the site. A specific project has not been proposed yet.
The most recent zoning action was the commission’s January 2, 2019 zone change to allow age-restricted housing in former commercial zones. This cleared the way for a planned 350-unit mixed independent, assisted and memory care project at the former United Healthcare property at 48 Monroe Turnpike.
That zone change, however, is tied up in a legal challenge filed by Tim Herbst, representing three residents of the nearby Woodland Hills Condominiuns who are challenging the P&Z decision.
Are they needed?
In his campaign, Michael Herbst has argued the focus should not be on residential development and has insisted some of the land being considered for apartments should be used to attract businesses instead.
“I don’t have any specific details, but commercial growth does bring in the revenue,” he said. “We can’t make any more land, so we need to optimize what we have.”
Herbst has advocated bringing in new commercial development that would increase the town’s Grand List without adding children to the schools or patients to the EMS capacity.
The 48 Monroe Turnpike, Herbst argued, would also include residents with disproportional medical needs.
“EMS will be hard pressed to keep up,” he said. “Will we have to change from volunteer fire services to paid? These are all things that need to be looked at.”
But some have argued the current and proposed apartment buildings’ very existence is due to changing economics. Canon, United Healthcare, Henderson Lumber and other commercial properties all sat vacant for years as companies downsized their locations.
“Look at Oakview, these were empty office buildings, with no prospect of returning to the tax rolls,” Preusch said. “That played a part in us trying to find new uses for these underperforming properties.”
As for his concerns about crowding the schools, some of which are nearing capacity, Herbst cited the Royce at Trumbull, a 341-unit apartment complex built in 1997 off Old Town Road, as an example of costs escalating beyond estimates.
“When Avalon built it, they said there would be 24 students living there,” he said. “It actually brought in 84 students, and it increased our education and public safety costs.”
But P&Z Chairman Fred Garrity, a Democrat, said the Royce (formerly Avalon Gates) is not directly comparable to the Oakview Drive and Monroe Turnpike proposals because it features child-friendly features like playgrounds and game rooms, and it was intended to attract a different demographic.
“Avalon always had a provision for affordable housing, which the current proposals don’t,” he said. “Also, Avalon includes three-bedroom apartments, so a family with children that lives in a three-bedroom wouldn’t be able to move into Oakview.”
“We studied these developments very carefully,” he said. “This is not Avalon.”
So what is driving the influx of apartments? Mostly millennials and Baby Boomers.
“These developers are investing millions, hundreds of millions of dollars in these projects because they know there’s a market for them,” Tesoro said. “Young people today are more transient, they’re not really interested in buying a house.”
In addition, as Baby Boomers age and find themselves in a position of no longer needing or wanting a single family house on an acre of property, they too are attracted to luxury rentals, Tesoro said.
“Life is changing, not just in Trumbull, but everywhere,” she said.
Garrity said P&Z research indicated that single family homes, which make up the majority of residential units in Trumbull, did not hold the attraction for millenials that it does for their parents.
“As communities, we’re all faced with the fact that the way people live and the choices they make are changing,” he said.
The biggest change, Preusch said, is time.
“People are getting married later, they’re having children later, and they’re buying houses later,” he said. “Our intent was to get these younger people’s feet in the door of Trumbull. Get them invested in the town, and when they’re ready to buy a house and start a family, they’ll do it here.”
Regardless of which first selectman candidate wins election Nov. 5, it is an open question what either one can do to support or oppose apartment development. First selectmen can make campaign promises, but he or she does not have a vote on the P&Z.
Tesoro said a first selectman has limited options.
“People want to keep Trumbull’s New England character, but we need economic growth for our tax base,” she said. “I can advocate, but ultimately the first selectman doesn’t have a vote on land use.”
Herbst, however, said that depending on the outcome of the P&Z election, he would “gather with the majority” to strategize when developers submit future applications.
“While it’s unrealistic for the first selectman to offer comment on every application that comes before our zoning boards, I believe that for those projects that will have a lasting impact on the skyline and services of our town, the first selectman should absolutely be on record and be vocal about either her support, or her opposition,” he said.
Garrity said such tactics would be a recipe for disaster.
“A zoning decision really is the first step in a legal process,” he said. “I have great respect for anyone who runs for local office, but there are a different set of rules for zoning candidates.”
People have a right to a fair hearing, Garrity said, noting that basing approvals or denials on factors other than an application’s compliance with zoning language could easily land the town in court.
Preusch argued the apartments could help drive other kinds of development in town.
“Trumbull can’t just build a wall around itself, and pretend we can keep things from changing,” Preusch said. “People who work in town need to live in town, and we’re already seeing that these apartments on the edges of town, on former industrial sites, can drive development.”
Restaurants and other services are now taking a serious look at Trumbull, especially near the proposed apartments, he said. “Businesses want to be where people are,” he said.