For the Community, a Close Look at 8-30g [Westport Now]

January 23, 2015

Article as it appeared in Westport Now

Westport Town Attorney Ira Bloom did not pull any punches tonight when he talked about the state’s affordable housing statute 8-30g that allows developers to override local zoning laws if a town does not have 10 percent of its housing stock deemed affordable—which Westport does not.

“There are many examples throughout the state where a developer who’s been turned down comes back with an 8-30g application,” he said. “It’s legal. They’re using this process to make money.”

Bloom was the first to speak at tonight’s Representative Town Meeting (RTM) Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Committee meeting that drew more than 100 to the Town Hall auditorium.

The topic of 8-30g has been at the forefront over the past several months as two multi-family housing complexes—a 200-unit, five-story one at the site of the Westport Inn and a 186-unit one at Hiawatha Lane Extension in Saugatuck—have been subjects of P&Z attention.

The Hiawatha Lane developer’s request for a sewer extension that would have made the development possible recently was withdrawn. Meanwhile, the Conservation Commission is scheduled to hear the Westport Inn request Wednesday night.

Others who spoke tonight included state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, Rep. Gail Lavielle, Sen. Toni Boucher and Sen. Tony Hwang, each one invited by P&Z Committee Chairman Matthew Mandell to give a legislator’s perception on the state law enacted in 1989.

Each acknowledged that it would be best for the town—which has only 2.7 percent of its 10,399 dwelling units classified as affordable—to seek more housing points to earn four-year moratorium while legislators try to work on amendments to the statute.

According to Bloom, 8-30g cases are most difficult for local zoning boards “because the rules are different.”

Cases are heard by the Land Use Docket Court in Hartford, which currently has 12 pending appeals.

“The most important thing to know about the law is that when there is a denial, the burden has shifted,” Bloom said. “The situation is reversed, and the burden shifts to the commission.”

Typically, P&Zs lose in court “at least 70 percent of the time because it’s a very difficult burden,” he said.

According to Bloom, commissions must show that the decision to deny was supported by sufficient evidence; was based upon the protection of some substantial public interest, such as traffic safety or protecting the water supply; that the public interest must “clearly outweigh the need” for affordable housing; and that there must be “no modifications that reasonably can be made to the application that permit it to be granted.”

Planning and Zoning Director Laurence Bradley said that for Westport to reach 10 percent, it would need to have 1,000 more affordable units.

“Do you know of any town that can go from 2 to 10 percent overnight?” asked Lavielle. “There’s no way out unless you have a moratorium.”

Steinberg agreed “it will be smart for us to find some way for a moratorium.”

“We’re very limited with the statute as it exists today,” Steinberg said, noting that proposed amendments to the statute that he had pushed gained no traction since the housing committee was “comprised of city folks.”

Hwang offered optimism, especially since one of his new assignments is ranking leader of the state Housing Committee.

“I really do see that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Hwang said, adding that one of the challenges would be to impress upon committee members Westport’s long history of offering affordable housing, from Hales Court to Sasco Creek to Canal Park to the town’s myriad shelters.

The problem is that the state does not count anything built before 1990s.

“We are a community that cares,” Hwang said. “That is not a light that has been shone on this community.

“This is not a community trying to keep out affordable housing,” he added, noting that the Westport Inn and Hiawatha Lane Extensions face opposition because they “are inconsistent with the town.”

One man asked if the town would consider affordable housing units for artists and writers in keeping with the town’s arts history.

RTM member Rick Weber expanded on this point, saying he would favor workforce, affordable housing for teachers, police and firefighters.

(However, a survey taken several years ago while Baron’s South was being considered for workforce housing showed little interest among Westport teachers, police officers, and firefighters in leaving their communities to move to Westport.)

First Selectman Jim Marpe, whose Board of Selectmen acting as the Water Pollution Control Authority votes on sewer requests, maintained a neutral stance as he observed from the back of the auditorium

“Judging by the turnout, clearly many Westporters are concerned about proposed 8-30g developments,” he said.