Planners raise affordable housing as possible solution in Branchville

Could affordable housing be a key element in Branchville’s future?

Planning and Zoning Commission members suggested the state’s 8-30g affordable housing law as potential tool for development in Branchville, surprising property owner Joe Ancona during a “pre-submission concept” discussion.

Ancona spoke to the commission’s Oct. 23 meeting with an eye to developing properties he owns on Wilridge Road and Park Lane, across Route 7 from the Branchville Train Station. The area currently has B-1 business zoning, which allows retail.

“The parcels I have are B-1, a block off Route 7,” Ancona said. “Retail’s impossible there. What’s not — as you have seen more than anyone else — is residential.

“You can mechanically fit about 14 units of residential on this parcel — it’s just under an acre,” he said.

An analysis showed potential for a septic system that could handle a development of 28 or 29 bedrooms, he said.

But under the current zoning, “I’d have to have a first floor with some kind of business function,” Ancona said.

He recalled a past proposal for mixed commercial and residential. “Eleven or 12 years ago, I came before this commission, I was calling it ‘Branchville Main Street,’” he said.

But Ancona argued that the ground floor retail shops envisioned in B-1 zoning no longer make economic sense.

“With the evolution of online shopping, small boutiques and those types of things — it’s a different world,” he said.

Ancona suggested the solution might be some kind of “design district” for the Branchville area — “creating a zoning overlay that would allow this area to incubate.”

Then commission chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti surprised him.

“This piece of property, my first thought is 8-30g,” Mucchetti said.

The 8-30g she referred to is the state affordable housing law allowing developments that ignore density limits and other zoning rules if 30% of units are set aside for people meeting state income guidelines.

This pathway around its own regulations is not something the commission has generally looked on favorably, and Ancona’s response reflected his surprise.

“I’ve been trying to do something a little more responsible than pursue 8-30g,” Ancona said.

“We view 8-30g as responsible, within the demands of what the state of Connecticut wants us to do,” said Commission member Charles Robbins.

Ancona suggested that market rates in Branchville would qualify as affordable rates in the village area around Main Street.

“Branchville is affordable housing,” he said.

But that’s not what he wants to do with his Willridge and Park Lane property.

“I’d love to be able to do a market-rate apartment building there,” he said, “the only thing holding me back is the zoning designation.”

The discussion ranged to other Ancona properties. There are no current plans for the former supermarket building off Route 102 that now houses CVS and Ancona’s Liquors, he said, but longer range plans envision changes to the older block of buildings facing onto Route 7 across from the train station.

“Replacing buildings my grandfather built around 1920,” Ancona said. “...These buildings need to be replaced.”

Commissioner John Katz said it isn’t the commission job to accommodate property owners’ desire for denser development.

“I don’t see that it’s the role of the commission to rezone to meet an immediate individual’s economic circumstance,” he said.

There are no sewers available in Branchville — Redding has a treatment plant in Georgetown that might someday be a solution, but it is currently saving its excess capacity for the long-planned redevelopment of the former Gilbert and Bennett wire mill property.

Mucchetti recalled that previous discussions of Branchville redevelopment had looked into putting a septic system under the Branchville community baseball field off playground Road — a type of waste treatment solution the state is more open to than in the past.

“Community septic systems are much improved from what they were a few years ago,” she said.

“We don’t have an aversion to 8-30g,” she told Ancona.

“That might be the way to go,” he said.