Editorial: Working the process
It’s about picking your fights — or, compromising in arguments you might lose.
In a familiar scene a crowd of residents turned out last week to oppose plans for a nine-unit project under the state’s 8-30g affordable housing law (read more on A1). What was different was that this proposal targeted Ridgebury, while most affordable housing battles have been fought over properties near the village.
What seemed the same was opponents’ high level of emotion, speaking at the Planning and Zoning Commission’s public hearing, feeling they were defending their homes from an unwanted high-density intrusion.
People are uneasy with change, and they’ll fight hard to defend homes that they’ve often poured their life savings into, homes that are the centers of their lives. They get frustrated by a system that seems to ignore their emotions and focus on legalistic and technical arguments about traffic, and stormwater management.
They don’t like it that, in a democracy, the town can’t just tell developers: ‘No, we don’t want it’ — even when townspeople seem united in their opposition. And they weren’t pleased with the dawning realization that while the commission might seek changes, and improvements, its process is to work with developers and make projects fit the regulations and the town better — not to stand as a wall against development and growth.
This all has to do with property rights, and with what will and won’t stand up in court. Commissioners explained that the state’s 8-30g law exempts qualifying developments — those with 30 percent affordable units — from nearly all zoning rules, leaving the commission with scant grounds to reject proposals and be able to successfully defend its actions.
With neighbors arguing the town should show more fight in the face of affordable applications, commissioners referenced a court case they’d lost a little over a decade ago. The case involved a big multifamily project by the intersection of Routes 7 and 35. The commission rejected the plan, basing its argument particularly on the traffic. The project, some 50 units, would be right there at the overburdened intersection of two highways with traffic that’s regularly and predictably horrible.
“Not only did commission members use their own knowledge of how traffic backs up there at that light, at the junction of 35, backing up north, but the commission had crash data,” commission attorney Thomas Beecher said, recalling the case. “It was at least five years of crash data, with a fair number of accidents in that intersection.” Still, the town lost.
The 8-30g law shifts the burden of proof from the developer appealing a denial — where it usually is in zoning cases — and requires the town to prove that it was justified in rejecting the proposal. To deny an 8-30g application the town needs to base its decision on “health, safety and welfare” issues — and it better have more problems to point to than long lines of cars.
Fighting cases like this through the various levels of court appeals can cost tens of thousands of dollars, so the commission is a little gun-shy.
All those appeals cost the developers money, too. The commission might not have much to stand on if it just shouts “no!” at an affordable housing project, but if it’s asking for reasonable changes that will make the project more palatable to the town while still allowing the developer to make a few bucks — well, that may get somewhere. Look at some affordable projects that have been built, even at fairly high densities — eight units on at the corner of Gilbert and New Streets, 20 units on an acre off Governor Street below the police station.
They suggest that when pursued with a balance of diligence and flexibility, the commission’s process — call it “collaboration rather than court” — can work.