Nine units on an acre? Turner Hill says ‘No!’
Turner Hill residents turned out, in anger and opposition, to a proposed affordable housing project the neighborhood portrayed not as an attempt to address social issues, but as an effort to use the state’s 8-30g law as a legal crowbar to force nine units onto an acre of Ridgebury land.
“We are dedicated to protecting the safety and aesthetics of the neighborhood in which we purchased our homes,” said Harold Moroknek of 34 Barnum Place, chief spokesman for about 40 Turner Hill neighborhood residents who packed the Planning and Zoning Commission’s Jan. 14 public hearing session.
“The lot size, 1.17 acres, is too small for nine townhouses, creating an excessive intensity of use,” he said.
“Seventy children ride bicycles, scooters and run through the neighborhood,” said Moroknek.
The proposal by Black Oaks LLC is for a nine-unit affordable housing development in a single building on a 1.17-acre site at the intersection of Turner Road and Barnum Place.
On the sloping site, the building would be three stories in the front and two stories in the back. The townhouse units would be about 2,200 square feet each, said architect Michael Stein of Stein-Troost Architecture in Norwalk. There would be two three-bedroom townhouses — one at either end of the building — with seven two-bedroom units in between. Three of the nine units would meet the affordability requirements set out by the state — meeting the 8-30g law’s 30 percent affordable requirement.
Each of the nine units would have a one garage parking space and one outdoor driveway space, with four visitor parking spaces outside — accommodating a total of 22 cars.
The project would involve re-establishing a disused portion of Turner Road, said applicant’s attorney Brian Smith of Robinson & Cole.
“From our research,” Smith said, “Clark’s Map of Fairfield County, drawn up in 1858, shows Turner Road ... This has been a public street that many years.”
The project would be served by municipal sewers — hooked into Danbury’s treatment plant, through a long-established agreement betwen the municipalities — and by Aquarion Water lines, as well as Eversource gas service.
Of the 40 or so neighbors who packed the commission’s hearing room in Town Hall Annex, at least 13 spoke against the proposal — some spoke more than once.
“This plan is an abomination, quite frankly,” said Diane Parson of 10 Hunt Court. “It’s overdeveloped for a parcel that’s too small to contain it...
“This is greed beyond comprehension,” she said. “They’re masking this in 8-30g.”
The hearing session was suspended at 11 p.m. — it was second on the agenda after another hearing that ran long.. The public hearing on the Black Oaks proposal was scheduled to reopen on Feb. 11. Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti appologized to residents who had waited so long to speak, and assured them the Black Oaks proposal would be first on that evening’s agenda, starting at 7.
One of the departing neighbors suggested the commission try to secure the Town Hall Annex’s larger hearing room — the school board’s meeting room — for the next session, saying there’s been about 20 more people who’d come to the hearing but left because they couldn’t get in the smaller P&Z meeting room.
Members of the commission and its staff described to the crowd how the state’s affordable housing law, 8-30g, limited the town’s ability to reject applications.
“Connecticut’s 8-30g statute overrides every zoning regulation there is,” said Planning and Zoning Director Richard Baldelli. “...The town is powerless.”
Neighbors opposed to the project wanted more fight out of the commission.
“This is really an abomination,” Parson said, “and to sit here and hear you say, as a commission, that it’s approval is a foregone conclusion…”
Opponents suggested the commission vote down the plan and then defend its action court — a course commission members said would mean a long and costly legal battle, likely to end in defeat. In addition to overriding most local zoning rules, the state’s 8-30g law shifts the burden of proof from the developer appealing a rejection of an application, and instead requires the commission to legally justify its decision denying an affordable housing application. Case law suggests that strong ‘health, safety and welfare’ arguments are needed for a rejection to stand up in court, the commission and its staff said.
“Hopefully, people understand,” commission attorney Thomas Beecher said after the hearing. ”Because, once again, there’s just sometimes the quick reaction to just blame the commission for these projects. And not everybody understands that with these types of applications for affordable housing, it’s a total reversal of what the commission’s normal role is. The commission is hamstrung.”
How much would such a court battle be expected to cost?
Tens of thousands of dollars, according to Beecher.
“It would be into the five figures,” he said. “...Superior Court, Appellate Court.”
Near the pool
Another major concern of the opponents was the proximity of the nine-unit project to the Turner Hill neighborhood’s swimming pool — especially during construction.
The Black Oaks team had said development of the site would require removing about 11,000 yards of earth and rocks. Planning and Zoning Director Baldelli had said his calculations found that the proposed development would require some “700 truck trips just to get the 11,000 yards of material out of the site.”
Anthony Suppa of 24 Lynn Place was outraged by the prospect of so much construction traffic to and from a worksite next door to the neighborhood association’s swimming pool.
“Seven hundred truckloads! For us, that’s a very high foot traffic area. For them, that’s a very high construction traffic area,” he said.
“Public health and safety, it’s a very big concern for us,” Suppa said.
Brett McLaughlin of 51 Barnum Place wondered how large fire trucks would get to and from an emergency in the area.
“All of us just saw what happened when they were trimming trees,” he said. “...How is an emergency vehicle going to get up and out of this area if they’re doing construction right here?”
He disparaged the site plan for the nine-unit project.
“For emergency vehicles, there’s no way out. There’s no second entrance,” McLaughlin said.
“That’s a pretty big concern.”
The applicant’s traffic engineer, Joseph Balskus, said the completed nine-unit project would be expected to add fewer than 10 one-way vehicle-trips in the morning commuter hour, and a similar number in the afternoon commute.
“These nine units, I’m looking at five trips in the morning, seven in the afternoon,” he said.
“Over the course of the day, 30 or 40 car trips” would be coming to or from the nine units.
Neighboring Barnum Place, with its 46 single family homes, would generate 40 to 50 trips just in the “peak hour” commuter rush, he said. “Over the course of the day, you’re probably looking at 500 cars coming in and out” of Barnum Place, Balskus said.
But the area, with its 25 miles per hour speed limit, is safe for cars, pedestrians and bicycles, according to Balskus.
“It’s safe enough that there’s no sidewalk leading to the pool,” he said.
Adding a nine-townhouse project shouldn’t change that, he said. Where the project’s driveway entrance is planned, sight-line distances are 341 feet to the south and 410 feet to the north.
“The town requirements are half of that,” Balskus said.
Researching car accidents for the past five years, he said, he’d found no accidents on Barnum Place, no accidents on Turner Road, and two at the intersection of Turner Road and Saw Mill Road.
“The intersection is safe. Turner Road is safe. Barnum Place is safe,” he said.
“I can say as a professional engineer, this development will not impact the safety of the traveling public.”
The neighbors weren’t convinced.
“We have 75 children living here,” said Laurie Bran of 8 Hunt Court. “We go five miles an hour.”
An issue raised by the commission and reiterated by its staff was the proposed nine-unit building’s lack of an accessibility for handicapped.
“So, this complex will not incorporate handicapped facilities?” Commissioner John Katz asked.
Applicant’s architect Michael Stein said that because the project was only nine units, it wasn’t required by the state to meet handicapped codes.
“Why, as a human being, why would you not want to design a building to be accessible?” Commissioner Katz asked.
“I don’t have a good answer for you, sir,” said Stein.
Later, Planning and Zoning Director Baldelli touched on the issue again in his report.
“I’m very disappointed the applicant has chosen not to address the accessibility of these units,” Baldelli said. “Nowadays, inserting an elevator in a building takes up 13 square feet and the cost is coming down almost on a monthly basis.”