View from Glen Hill: Affordable housing — Better to be proactive rather than reactive

As the Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) process advances, I hope — and certainly expect knowing the quality of the process as it has advanced — that careful consideration will be given to affordable housing not only because it is legally encouraged (and may be even more so under plans being considered by the state) but also because it brings to our town increased diversity in income and perhaps also a to-be-welcomed increase in racial and ethnic diversity as well.

That being said with respect to the positive side of affordable housing, I have nevertheless expressed in the recent past concerns about large-scale affordable housing development coming to an historically significant and beautifully bucolic tract like 183 Ridgefield Road. Fortunately, the issue concerning the use of the 183 Ridgefield Road property is in the process of being very successfully resolved. This ideal result has involved the Wilton Land Conservation Trust stepping in to resolve with the landowner the trust’s acquisition of the tract for land conservation, preservation, and recreational uses under a year-long timetable arranged to complete the funding. We can all be very grateful to the trust, its generous donors, and the landowner for working out this farsighted resolution of the matter.

In the course of discussions about use of that tract before this resolution was worked out, the issue of affordable housing came up. That housing is important to plan for in order to focus its development in areas where it will work best and be most appropriate.  While state law does not allow our town complete freedom by any means in making such a designation — and especially so when the current moratorium for Wilton respecting such housing ends in less than two years — it’s nevertheless wise for the POCD to indicate our town’s receptiveness to the concept and to designate certain areas as most appropriate for affordable-housing development.

There are some remaining tracts in Wilton large enough to accommodate significant numbers of affordable units, and even as little as 10 acres is sufficient for that, as the Avalon development just south of the Routes 7 and 33 split has shown. That tract’s original owner proposed a modest development of 20 homes, but our town turned him down. In frustration, the owner sold to Avalon who fought for a decade (at a cost of $500,000 in town litigation expenses). Avalon ultimately prevailed because the state’s affordable housing statute (Sec. 8-30g) removes most local zoning regulatory control over affordable development. Amendments to that law last summer did nothing to alter the situation for Wilton, and the moratorium on application of affordable-housing overrides to municipal zoning rules now in effect here will end with no present possibility of being renewed.

Our town learned its lesson from this Avalon experience, and so for a 10-acre tract on River Road, it didn’t oppose a 30-house development. Neither that development nor the similarly sized Wilton Hunt development on Route 33 seem to have had any adverse impact on our town; in fact, quite the opposite: to the extent they have enabled new residents to move to Wilton, they have improved our town for everyone.  

For both the Avalon and River Road developments, a sewer line ran right by the parcel with the developer therefore having the right of hook-up (at the developer’s own expense) as long as there was available sewer capacity, and town officials report that our town sewer system definitely has available capacity. The presence of a town sewer line running right by a tract thus makes affordable-housing development of that tract significantly easier. However, could an affordable-housing developer without such a running-by sewer line nevertheless compel the extension (at the developer’s expense) of a nearby town sewer line to the developer’s tract? Or, alternatively, could a developer planning a large-scale affordable housing development economically create an on-site waste-treatment facility itself?

These practical considerations as well as the need for more affordable housing for strong societal reasons all counsel in favor of planning for affordable housing construction as part of the POCD. Doing so would be a wise move on the merits of the importance of affordable-housing development in its own right and could also aid in raising our town’s percentage of affordable housing to a point where we are once again not legally mandated to accept such housing with far less zoning constraint than for other land-development projects.

Careful affordable-housing planning not only serves a farsighted purpose for the character of our town but also can avoid a lot of future collective community angst.