Westport reaches deal on contentious affordable housing plan in effort to keep moratorium

Photo of Katrina Koerting
An updated rendering for the proposed affordable housing project on Hiawatha Lane in Westport.

An updated rendering for the proposed affordable housing project on Hiawatha Lane in Westport.

Contributed photo

WESTPORT — An 18-year saga over a contentious affordable housing project in the Saugatuck neighborhood appears to have come to a conclusion to the dismay of those who live there.

The Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved a settlement between the town and Summit Saugatuck LLC on Wednesday, as well as a favorable report that paves the way for the Hiawatha Lane development to hook up to the town’s sewer, one of the project’s remaining hurdles.

Commissioners and Town Attorney Ira Bloom said the settlement came about because they were worried they would lose the lawsuit in court and that this was the way to gain some local control over the project, including scaling it back and adding protections.

“They decided to take some action and be proactive and try to decide our own destiny,” Bloom said.

The developers did not speak at the meeting. A judge still has to approve the settlement.

A key part of the agreement is it will let the town to keep its moratorium against proposals filed under the 8-30g state statute, which allows developers to circumvent local zoning laws if a certain percentage of the development has affordable housing.

That law was a main point of contention raised throughout the meeting because commissioners said it was the only reason this development is being built in this spot. They said it went against Westport’s zoning and raised concerns about traffic, as well as the size with more than 150 units slated for the neighborhood, largely made up of single-family homes.

The proposal originally called for 187 units, but the commission brought the figure down to 157 during negotiations, eliminating one of the five proposed buildings and requiring some of the units have three bedrooms to better serve families. The commission also added several fire safety stipulations and conditions that the developer couldn’t submit any other 8-30g applications for the site. The developer will also be required to pave Hiawatha Lane and fix the culverts to address flooding concerns.

“After several decades of debate and litigation, we think this is in the best interest of all parties,” said Danielle Dobin, the commission’s chairwoman. “We advocated forcefully on behalf of our Hiawatha neighbors.”

Neighbors and former commissioners disagreed with that sentiment though, spending nearly four hours before the commission’s vote expressing anger at the deal and urging the commission to continue fighting.

David Sarno, a resident in the neighborhood, said he felt “betrayed” by the commission.

“You sold the neighborhood out for a 16 percent reduction to an absurd proposal,” he said.

One of the conditions of the settlement is that the developer must drop all four lawsuits connected to this project, including the one challenging Westport’s moratorium, which was granted just after the commission denied the same project in 2019.

Westport officials said the town received notice in March that paperwork was missing and the state was going to revoke the moratorium with two years remaining.

On Thursday, a spokesman for the state Department of Housing said the agency couldn’t comment on pending litigation.

The developer has tried to build on the site on Hiawatha Lane for years, slowly expanding the size and being denied by the commission. It wasn’t until the proposal was expanded and presented as an affordable housing project under 8-30g that it was able to move forward, though still without the commission’s support, officials said Wednesday.

Residents and former commissioners questioned the developer’s intention to truly help address the affordable housing need in the state, especially Westport, since the development would go in what they called one of the few affordable parts of the town, replacing homes that could have been bought by the people the developer claims to want to help.

The neighborhood is near the Norwalk line and has a long history of housing Westport’s working class, such as mechanics, police officers and firefighters. It was deeded decades ago to workers who helped build the nearby railroad tracks and Interstate 95, according to comments at Wednesday’s meeting.

“There’s no other neighborhood that’s more diverse,” said Ashley Hemson, a resident, adding he and his neighbors largely moved there so they could send their children to Westport’s schools but couldn’t afford anywhere else in town.

Neighbors also argued families displaced should have the first right to the affordable units and more than 30 percent of the units should be set aside as affordable.

Residents questioned why the developer didn’t propose the site in another part of town that was more commercial and could better serve a project of this size.

Dobin said these projects are largely led by for-profit developers who are taking advantage of the 8-30g statute so their projects can be built. She said Saugatuck was especially vulnerable because the land is cheaper, its close to a train station and there will now be sewer hookups, making it even more attractive to developers.

She said the moratorium will prevent future projects like this because they will have to adhere to the town’s zoning laws, which doesn’t allow that type of development in the area.

Residents argued the outpouring of anger from residents and the concerns they presented had merit for appealing the case. Former commissioners also asked the commission to not settle, saying it was worth the risk.

“Settlement of this goes against against good business sense and is based on fear of the unknown,” said Cathy Walsh, a former commissioner who was involved in the discussions until her recent resignation.

But officials said the town has recently lost two 8-30g denials in the courts based off similar concerns and predicted this would have the same outcome, allowing the project to be built as originally proposed. The fire marshal opposed those two projects too, saying they weren’t up to Westport’s more stringent fire code, but a judge ruled they met the state’s codes and were adequate.

In denying a project, the burden is placed on the town to prove there is a health or safety risk.

“The writing is on the wall,” said Commissioner Paul Lebowitz. “The towns are losing; the developers are winning.”

Bloom said that about 75 percent of 8-30g denials are determined in favor of the developer.

Commissioners ended the evening agreeing with the points and concerns raised by residents, but said they felt this was the best option since they could modify the project.

“No one likes the way this is being done,” said Commissioner Neil Cohn.