North Stonington residents, officials ask questions about 84-unit affordable housing complex

12/4/2009

By Claire Bessette
The Day

North Stonington - Public hearings on the proposed 84-unit Meadowcourt affordable-housing apartment complex on Route 2 progressed for nearly three hours Thursday with no action taken by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

About 40 people attended the hearing in a cramped Town Hall meeting room. Discussion stretched to 10 p.m., with residents and town officials posing questions of the applicants. But Commission Vice Chairwoman Elaine Boissevain postponed public comments to Jan. 7, when the hearings will continue.

The proposal calls for 56 one-bedroom affordable-housing apartments arranged to face a central one-acre meadow or green, and 14 two-bedroom, market-rate apartments with 14 market-rate studio apartments along the periphery. Facing Route 2 would be a multipurpose commercial building with a farmers market, greenhouse, community meeting room and a canteen or country store.

Project applicant V & M Construction Inc. of Westerly would build the complex, which would be served by water lines from the Southeastern Connecticut Water Authority and would have an onsite sewage-treatment system. The 7.24-acre parcel is located adjacent to the former Boondocks fishing supply store.

The plans were submitted under the state statutes that govern affordable-housing development in towns with low affordable-housing percentages. The statutes give the town limited authority over affordable-housing plans, with reviews for only health and safety factors.

Meadowcourt needs a zone change to place the property in an affordable-housing development overlay zone and accompanying zoning text amendments to govern the zone. Both issues required public hearings.

Prior to opening the zone-change hearing Thursday, PZC attorney Michael Carey reminded the audience and commission members they had to review the project based on strict health and safety issues, such as traffic, storm water management, sewage treatment and fire safety. Housing density cannot be considered on its own, he said.

Carey cautioned that questions about who might or might not live in the complex were "out of bounds."

Richard Finn of 435 Norwich-Westerly Road/Route 2, a neighboring property owner, said he could envision his property value declining with the development, but acknowledged he could not address that issue. But Finn asked what protection his well and septic system would have with the nearby project. He also asked whether the proposed market-rate apartments could be converted into more affordable housing in the future. Project officials said the state Department of Environmental Protection would have to review and approve the sewage engineering.

Outside the meeting room, Finn expressed frustration at the limitations placed on the town by the state law.

"It's a slam dunk," said Finn, a four-year resident. "It doesn't matter what we say."

John Olson, chairman of the town's Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, led off Thursday's hearing by providing an overview description of the project, including building layout and architectural designs. Olson is not part of the development team, but has been active in support of the plans. He said the design plan was presented to several North Stonington agencies, including the Affordable Housing Committee, the Board of Selectmen and the PZC.

Olson said the project would serve North Stonington's goal of increasing affordable housing while keeping the town's rural character. He emphasized the potential attraction of the proposed farmers market, inviting town farmers to support the concept.

The commission also had to weigh whether adverse impacts on the town outweighed the need for affordable housing, and whether the proposed project could be changed to reduce the impacts while protecting affordable housing.

During the question portion of the hearing, First Selectman Nicholas Mullane questioned whether the Southeastern Connecticut Water Authority has enough water pressure to support the proposed two fire hydrants. He said the SCWA system does not have capacity to supply fire hydrants. Project officials said they would provide further information on the water system.

The project traffic study also has not yet been completed. Information is pending on the number of cars the project would add to Route 2 at various times of the day and delays residents might face trying to turn into or out of the project. The application needs local zoning approval before it can obtain state traffic permits.