Legislators share views on economy, housing [Minuteman Newscenter]

December 11, 2014

Article as it appeared in the Minuteman Newscenter

By Bonnie Adler

Fears of massive new building projects locally and disastrous fiscal management by state government were the topics of conversation at a forum of state legislators last Thursday at Westport Library.

The forum was co-sponsored by the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce, and moderated by its president Matthew Mandell and the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. State Senators Toni Boucher (R-26) and Tony Hwang (R-28) and State Representatives Gail Lavielle (R-143) and Jonathan Steinberg (D-136) offered their perspectives.

In response to a question by Mandell, all the legislators voiced their objections to potential plans for development of several sites in Westport, including the Westport Inn on the Post Road and Hiawatha Lane in Saugatuck. Both locations are now potential sites for large scale housing developments which could be covered by a state statute known as 8-30g. That statute, enacted by the state legislature more than 20 years ago to increase affordable housing in local towns with less than 10 percent of its housing stock available as affordable, grants developers rights to build larger, denser housing projects which may not be in conformity with town zoning laws, as long as 30 percent of the housing built is “affordable rate.” Because of this state law, a developer whose plan is rejected by town planning and zoning commissions for

non-conformity to town regulations, could sue and potentially win in court for the right to build outsize housing using the state statute 30G as justification.

Boucher explained the original purpose of the statute was a belief by inner city legislators that “cities were bearing the brunt of affordable housing and local towns were getting off scott free.

“There was a lot of anger behind the start of this statute. As time has gone on, that has changed,” said Boucher.

“Legislators may be more open to reasonable changes. We want towns to have some decision-making power to locate housing in the right locations which will not change the character of the community. I am hopeful that will happen.”

Lavielle added, “In Wilton where I live there are outright threats by developers who want to build high density housing in high traffic areas.

One thing a town can do is apply for a four-year moratorium.

A plan can then be created to use housing incentive zones when the moratorium is over.”

Calling the statute “an overreach of the best of intentions, a one size fits all mandate that just doesn’t work,” Tony Hwang, newly elected to the state Senate in a district that includes Fairfield and part of Westport said, “We have to do a better job in explaining to the broader community what the implications of these housing blocks are. This is not just neighborhood problem, but it an issue for all members of towns and regions.”

Steinberg said Westport had to bear the burden of proof that it can establish inclusionary housing zones as a way to establish diversity. “We have to use the carrot rather than the stick,” he said.

Lavielle noted the merger of the South Western Regional Planning Agency with the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials, and said the two planning organizations will form one collective known as the Western Connecticut Council of Governments to gain a bit more clout in the state legislature.

“It will help to combat the problem of people who live in our towns who do not pay taxes but use town services,” she said.

On the economic woes of the state, all were in agreement that huge problems exist.

Lavielle said, “We need a major overhaul of the system. Not just a fix.” Citing a $100 million deficit for the current fiscal year and an unfunded liability of $60 billion, she listed a string of disastrous fiscal management techniques.

“We have used bonding money to cover operating expenses. Our revenues are consistently under our spending. Connecticut is in a state of permanent fiscal surprise,” she said.

Boucher suggested following the example of the state of Rhode Island which, despite claims that it could not be done, renegotiated existing contractual obligations with state employee unions reducing benefits that equalled 80 percent of salaries.

Hwang said, “We can’t operate our state on a credit card mentality. We are committed to bringing out transparency and the facts.

Steinberg said, “We are still doing things the same way, expecting revenues to grow. Changes have to be on cost cutting side.”

Steinberg said he favors installing congestion pricing toll lanes to increase revenue for the transportation budget, but his suggestion raised alarm amongst his colleagues who called it yet another tax.

Boucher called the idea very controversial and said transportation budgets get raided by every administration, despite legislative efforts to create “lockbox” laws to prevent those raids.