Ridgefield committee to revise affordable housing plan

RIDGEFIELD — Members of the Affordable Housing Committee have some work cut out for them to revise the draft plan they discussed this week with the Board of Selectmen.

The committee has gathered input from residents through public information sessions and a public hearing, and received feedback from both the Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Selectmen, all of which they’ll incorporate to revise the affordable housing draft starting Monday night.

The impetus to create such a plan comes down from the state and a recently passed law that requires each municipality to prepare and adopt an affordable housing plan this year and subsequently at least once every five years going forward. The plan must specify how the municipality intends to increase the number of affordable housing developments within the municipality.

The plans were due to the state by June 1, but less than half of municipalities submitted theirs on time. Ridgefield has requested an extension, with the Board of Selectmen discussing the issue during a meeting on June 1. Residents have pushed back on the plan during public meetings.

“A good healthy debate about this is what the state really wanted when they passed this (law),” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said. “Get the debate going and see what your community can do to address this issue, that’s what they intended.”

Marconi said the town could have simply written a few paragraphs and attached it to the Western Connecticut Council of Governments toolkit on affordable housing and called it done, but they don’t want something shallow.

“There’s a lot of work that goes into it and a lot of debate that has to take place,” he said. “WestCOG is not going to do the work and tell us what our plan should be. That’s up to us and Ridgefield to decide.”

Ridgefield’s affordable housing stock sits around 3 percent under the state’s definition of affordable, a far cry from the 10 percent that the state would like to see for all municipalities.

But closing that gap for Ridgefield is unreachable in the short term, so the affordable housing plan draft tries to address what the town can reasonable accomplish over the next five years — politically, economically and environmentally, said Dave Goldenberg, chairman of the Affordable Housing Committee.

Goldenberg said adding 125 affordable units in the next five years is a reasonable goal if the town is proactive in its approach through development, zoning and landlord incentives.

The town won’t reach that goal if it continues to average adding 17 affordable units per year, Marconi said.

Some of the recommendations in the draft plan that were supported by the Planning and Zoning Commission include taking steps to create inclusionary zoning — something Ridgefield doesn’t have — and making use of existing building stock — called adaptive reuse — to turn into housing units.

The Planning and Zoning Commission was critical, however, of naming specific properties or areas of town in the draft plan to develop housing.

“We believe recommendations for new construction of affordable housing on specific targeted sites may be premature and risky to success for a Plan such as this,” the commission said in the feedback submitted to the Affordable Housing Committee. “While any ‘project’ may be proven feasible and achievable, PZC must hesitate to endorse them specifically, given the limited information at this stage.”

Marconi seconded that.

“Most of us on the Board of Selectmen and Planning and Zoning agree we shouldn’t be targeting a specific piece of property to build a number of units,” he said. “We should look at a goal of what we want to achieve. We need to leave that alone for now and it should be a land use issue for planning ans zoning to look at zoning, traffic, etc…we’re not prepared to say that we can put 75 units on Prospect Ridge.”

He was referring to a 15-acre parcel of town-owned land where the draft plan suggests 70 units of affordable housing could be built.

Marconi said all the questions and implications for building affordable housing in a specific area should come at the time of an application, and it’s premature to even suggest on building in specific locations.

Goldenberg said the mere inclusion of those properties in a draft doesn’t commit the town to building it, but understands the concern.

“If you put it in a plan people will demand it without careful thinking, but you also have plans that say nothing and accomplish nothing and sit on a shelf,” he said. “I think there are ways that we can get to our goals by being a bit more general. I think we’ve made a pretty compelling case that the need exists in Ridgefield.”

Goldenberg said he’s happy the Planning and Zoning Commission supports transit oriented development because that kind of zoning could encourage development of the Branchville neighborhood.

He said he expects the committee to meet a couple more times to fully revise the draft plan, taking everyone’s feedback into consideration, but the committee and Marconi hope to vote on something July 8.

“The Office of Policy and Management is more concerned with having a healthy discussion than meeting an exact deadline,” Goldenberg said. “I’m very pleased that the town is taking this seriously.”