Inclusionary zoning proposal draws criticism as affordable housing debate picks up in Ridgefield

Ridgefield Town Hall

Ridgefield Town Hall

File photo / Macklin Reid photo/Hearst Connecticut Media

RIDGEFIELD — A proposal for an inclusionary zoning regulation that would mandate certain developers to designate some housing as affordable is drawing pushback, including from one critic who said it could have a "devastating" impact on property values across the town.

More than a half-dozen people spoke out against the proposal at a recent public hearing held by the town Planning & Zoning Commission.  

"The environment of which you attract people to your town is going to be changing drastically," Ridgefield resident Tom Pesce said. "The scale and the impact of the people that are living here must be considered. And I don't think that's really coming into effect because there are (about) 26,000 people living here at this point. ... Where are we considering their lifestyle and their investments for the town? ... You're devastating the value of all our homes around here."

If passed, the regulation would require all projects with four or more housing units to designate a minimum of 15 percent of those units as affordable. Additionally, it would give the P&Z Commission some discretion to work with applicants that are willing to incorporate affordable housing at a percentage above the mandatory minimum. 

A second public hearing on the issue was to be held Tuesday night before the Planning & Zoning Commission. It must vote on the proposal within 65 days after the close of the public hearing.

'A lot of uncertainty'

The proposed regulation is intended to incentivize the development of affordable housing. As part of the proposal, developers that go above the mandatory minimum, such as 20 or 25 percent, would be eligible for such incentives as more relaxed zoning standards.  

The mandate would include all types of housing, including single-family homes, and it would apply to all zones in town.

At the first public hearing last week, Ridgefield resident and land use attorney Bob Jewell said it would be a "huge mistake" to include single-family residential development as part of the mandate. He said it's "very difficult" to get new single-family homes built in town.

"Land values are very volatile ...  It can take up to a year to get a subdivision approved," he said of the long process. "So, on top of all the other risks of the market, a builder has to take the chance that in the year that it takes to get their project approved, that if the market was favorable when they started, it will still be favorable when they start construction. And then, since it takes a year to 18 months to construct a home in many cases, that it will stay hot while they build the home. So, there's a lot of uncertainty."

Multifamily units

At the hearing, some who work in the housing industry said that if the regulation were to pass, subdivisions that include single-family homes would no longer be economically viable because there would be no return on investment. 

To make a profit, builders would turn to multifamily units instead —  low-cost housing in high-rises with minimal added amenities — something many made clear they don't want. 

If multifamily units were to be built, however, Jewell said it would make the most sense to keep them in one area.

"Most of the multifamily has remained concentrated in the center of town as part of the town's Plan of Conservation and Development," he said.  

"That's really the only thing that would work and I don't think we should be in a position of encouraging multifamily out in the neighborhoods that are not certified public, water public sewer. They look out of place and they are physically out of place."

Keeping residents in town

Many incentive types of housing programs "provide opportunities to the poor folks who have the lowest end of the income," Jewell said. 

He said, however, it makes more sense for the town to work to keep its current residents from moving out of town.

"It pays for you as the local government if you're going to provide incentives in affordable housing, or rent control, which this kind of is a version of, to accommodate the local folks that are here — the people that built this town," Jewell said.

"If you don't keep your residents, then your town isn't really a town. It's just a fungible town like every other town where people come and go."

The Planning & Zoning Commission has also received written correspondence from 15 people about the proposed regulation. 

In his letter, real estate business owner Robert Cascella of Ridgefield, said the proposal "doesn’t make financial sense for those who would wish to develop housing in town due to the relatively small number of residents who qualify for affordable housing. Ridgefield has a poverty rate of 2 percent or 180 households out of about 9,000, and has 286 low-income restricted housing units.

Connecticut’s affordable housing law, called 8-30g, encourages towns with less than 10 percent of its housing stock considered “affordable” to develop more. Cascella said the 10 percent threshold would require the addition of 600 to 700 affordable units, based upon statewide standards.

David Goldenberg, chairman of the Ridgefield Affordable Housing Committee, however, said he "enthusiastically supports" the proposed regulation.

In a letter to the commission, Goldenberg said, "Inclusionary zoning regulations are specifically enabled by state statute, and municipalities around the state have introduced them with success. ... The proposed regulation offers developers an alternative to 830-g ... allowing the town to better guide growth and development."