Encourage carefully planned affordable housing in Wilton

Stephen Hudspeth Web sig

Stephen Hudspeth Web sig

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

Being proactive on well-conceived affordable housing proposals helps to take pressure from Hartford off Wilton for other ways to get to that result.

That can sound cynical, and there has been a charge recently leveled against our locally-elected state officials of cynicism in their alleged voting “no” on state initiatives to move us in various directions while knowing full well that the opposite result will come about given the composition of our state legislature.

The reality is, however, that the kind of pro-active thinking happening now on affordable housing in Wilton serves broad and good societal purposes even as it gives our elected officials evidence of forward progress to present in Hartford in opposition to, or major modification of, proposed legislative remedies. Moreover, it offers creative real-world solutions to address the need for new uses for office properties to be found and as the need to attract a younger population becomes an ever-growing town concern.

Thus, it’s very encouraging to see the amount of work that’s being done now in Wilton on affordable housing. This is a smart move for our town as well as for society as a whole, as I’ve urged in previous columns on this subject.

Specifically, a remodeling development is proposed for an existing commercial structure on lower Danbury Road near ASML and within the area that our town’s recent Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) has focused upon for such development. That proposal is presented under Section 8-30g affordable housing rules to create 18 units.

On a much larger scale, two multi-unit complexes are also being proposed for lower Danbury Road. In each case, a large existing commercial-structure site is proposed for conversion into affordable housing. One proposal calls for 116 units at 64 Danbury Road (about the same number of units as in the Avalon rental property on the heights opposite Rings End on Danbury Road), and the other a 188-unit proposal on what has been the Melissa & Doug headquarters property at 141 Danbury Road.

Developers point to the added town tax revenues from these projects and that they conform to the objectives laid out in the POCD for development focused in specific areas already heavily developed and near transportation and shopping -- in short, in areas of town best suited to affordable housing. The POCD envisions them as rightly attracting a more diverse population even as their residents’ shopping needs bode well for town businesses and the added real estate tax revenues will augment town coffers financially.

In fact, the POCD contemplates a sort of public-private partnership in these types of projects in the sense of regulatory incentives in the form of relaxed zoning rules and requirements, and the leadership of our Planning & Zoning Commission (P&Z) seems very open to consideration of these types of proposals as steps consistent with the POCD.

More generally, P&Z is reviewing its zoning regulations in new master planning, also as contemplated in the POCD. That’s smart for the same reasons and also to avoid the type of litigation now proceeding against the town of Woodbridge by a nonprofit affordable housing developer there. That developer is seeking to have the courts compel the overhaul of the town’s zoning laws on the grounds that their universally required large single-family-home lot sizes are specifically intended to be racially exclusionary.

The same kind of out-of-the-box thinking can be really smart on the education front as well, as I’ve also urged in earlier columns. The Open Choice program in the Hartford area has been working very well for many years now to bus Hartford-resident students to twenty-six neighboring towns. 2,350 Hartford students are being educated this way annually. Westport uses Open Choice with Bridgeport students, and the program is also in use in the New Haven and New London areas.

The program is entirely voluntary both for students from the sending town and for the receiving town. The state provides some financial support to the receiving district and also covers all busing costs. The sending district covers special needs costs. Students are selected during their elementary years and follow on as long as they choose to stay. They fill out existing classes, not requiring the creation of new ones; that makes marginal-cost-based state reimbursement a fair reflection of the financial impact for the receiving district.

Open Choice is a good choice for Wilton, just as welcoming and encouraging affordable housing in the areas planned for it in the carefully crafted POCD offers our town a very well-considered way forward.