How does Ridgefield encourage affordable housing developments while maintaining the town’s sleepy New England charm? That was the question at a public hearing to discuss a proposed “mixed use overlay zone” at the Nov. 21 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting.

The hearing was granted an extension to the commission’s Dec. 19 meeting.

As Planning and Zoning Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti put it, the approach would use a “carrot and stick” to incentivize developers away from using the state’s 8-30g affordable housing rule.

The carrot offered in this case is the ability to charge higher rents on a larger number of affordable housing units within the overlay zone. For the first 40 years, a developer who submitted plans in the overlay zone would be allowed to charge 80% of the state median income for 30% of the available housing units.

The plan would allow developers to build multi-family projects with a density of 16 housing units per acre within the B-1, B-2, and B-3 business zones.

State law

The overlay zone would attempt to woo developers away from using the 8-30g state law, but it “does not obviate a developer from bulldozing through all that and building an 8-30g to his pleasure,” as Commissioner John Katz put it.

Under an 8-30g application, a developer may circumvent local density, height, and lot coverage restrictions, all in exchange for the developer ensuring that 30% of the housing units in the development are rented at affordable rates for the first 40 years.

Of those affordable housing units, half may be rented at 80% of the state median income, while the other half would have to be rented at 60% of the state median income.

The fear shared among commission members and Planning and Zoning staff would be that the lack of density and height restrictions under 8-30g would allow a developer to ignore aesthetic concerns, and fundamentally change the character of the town.

“We’ve been lucky in that the 8-30g units that we have in town have been built by people in town,” said Mucchetti. Those units haven’t disrupted the neighborhoods in which they were built.

The town successfully negotiated a moratorium on the 8-30g rule in 2014. That agreement runs out in the fall of 2018, however.

Assistant Planner Adam Schnell, who presented the Planning and Zoning Commission’s plan before the commission for discussion, said the likelihood of the town negotiating a new moratorium is essentially a moot point. Because of the number of additional affordable housing units the town would need, “it’s not going to happen,” he said. While the proposal is being submitted by the commission, Schnell essentially wrote the regulation himself. Schnell said he had worked on the proposal for around 18 months.

Affordable housing

But some members of the public in attendance at the Nov. 21 hearing felt that cutting out 60% housing would hit the town’s aging, and economically disadvantaged, population too hard.

Dave Goldenberg, who previously served on the town Affordable Housing Committee, argued that the jump to all 80% housing could be a huge difference for people living paycheck to paycheck.

“There’s a close-to-$500 monthly difference there,” Goldenberg said, speaking about the difference in the price of rent between 60% and 80% of the state median income.

The state median income for a single adult in 2017 was $57,277.48, according to the Connecticut United Way. With a state rent guideline of no more than 30% of a household’s income spent on housing, a single person making 60% of the median income would pay around $859 a month in rent, versus $1,145 per month for someone making 80% of the median income.

“What this incentive does is dissuade builders from that [60% housing] that the town needs,” Goldenberg said.

“I think the concerns you raise are valid,” said Schnell. He said he recognized Ridgefield’s need for that type of affordable housing. However, Schnell cautioned, “I don’t think this regulation is the best vehicle to address that need.”

Commissioner Bob Cascella pondered if the overlay zone could create a two-tier system that would incentivize larger developments to include 60% affordable housing.

“Perhaps this regulation can include a component for a larger development that would allow for that 60%,” said Cascella. “I’m going up and down [Route] 7 in my head, and there’s some good-size properties that have water and sewer.”

But local developer and Selectman Steve Zemo argued that while he liked the idea of including 60% housing in larger developments, watering down the incentives in the interest of capturing the affordable housing might backfire.

“These are people building without grants, without tax credits … all of that builds 60% housing,” said Zemo. “If you water down the incentives …”

Mucchetti finished the thought for him. “They’ll say, ‘Thank you very much, we’ll see you with an 8-30g.”

Schell reminded the commission that he was open to suggestions on the proposed regulation. “Don’t be cautious because I wrote this,” he said. “I’m happy to rewrite the whole thing.”