Hudspeth: A unique trifecta of benefits in Wilton

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

Can our state and our town partner on affordable housing in ways that really benefit Wilton?

In my Jan. 27 column, I laid out key facts surrounding affordable housing in Wilton: State statute Section 8-30g permits private developers to avoid many of the constraints of local zoning laws but only in municipalities that don’t have 10 percent or more of their housing qualifying as affordable under state standards. The only exception is if a municipality has a state-issued four-year moratorium and Wilton doesn’t qualify for one.

Wilton has long been farsighted on affordable housing. For example, Wilton was among the earliest towns to move to comply with Sec. 8-30g when it was first enacted, largely using senior-citizen-only affordable housing. Wilton has also had in place for some time regulations enabling accessory dwelling units even while neighboring towns have not. Wilton’s selectmen right now are considering proposals for developing town-owned land for small-scale affordable housing.

However, Wilton currently has less than 4 percent of its housing qualifying as affordable. To get to 10 percent would require approximately 2,000 new apartment units that comply with Sec. 8-30g’s requirement of a 30 percent set-aside of affordable housing for forty years in order for developers to take advantage of those zoning-law-avoidance privileges. So, reaching the 10 percent level by means of new 30 percent-set-aside construction appears highly unlikely.

However, construction of 500 units of entirely affordable housing would carry Wilton to the 10 percent level, and Wilton developments have included 100 apartment units attractively placed on as little as ten acres of land. Furthermore, our town’s recent Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) has identified key locations along the Route 7 corridor where congregate housing could appropriately be sited, but the key constraints on affordable-housing-only developments are land acquisition costs and the availability of sewer and water lines.

Conveniently, our state is sitting on quite a bit of unused land acquired for the extension of Super 7 through Wilton that falls within the POCD’s appropriately designated areas. Could that land not already committed to town uses be used for affordable-only housing development? Using it in that way would satisfy a major state objective of increasing the supply of affordable housing even as it blocks any revival plans for extension of Super 7, and it could also be used as an added justification for the state to spend money on improving Metro-North rail service on the Danbury line to meet the needs of those occupying these new units.

In fact, rail improvements and housing are closely intertwined. State Senator Will Haskell and Wilton First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice have talked with our state’s Department of Transportation. That department is the one that has had the call on this land for Super 7 right-of-way use. The state would need to transfer the land to the town with affordability requirements and build-out-timing requirements, and the town would need state indemnification to avoid being stuck with default liability on any project.

Haskell notes that “Since Wilton does not have a housing authority, town officials would likely partner with a private developer. In my view, this conversation ought to include land near the Wilton and Cannondale train stations. Along with my colleagues on the Transportation Committee, I've been working hard to convince the state to invest millions of dollars in our rail lines. But many colleagues rightly point out that our train stations are largely inaccessible to individuals who do not own a car. Supporting transit-oriented development is not only the right thing to do — it's also the smart thing to do.”

New state legislation might well be in order that includes provision for state indemnification of municipalities from default exposure for affordable developments constructed on state-transferred land. The legislation would also appropriately require state approval of an adequate density of housing on the tracts transferred to municipal ownership plus requirements for limitation of development to affordable units only and for prompt development.

The objective here is a very important one for our town’s well-being in attracting young people even as it addresses housing equity. In fact, it seems eminently doable if our state and Wilton can find ways to partner with each other and with private developers to make use of this unused state land for a very lofty purpose even as we also enjoy the benefits of encouraging state investment in improvements to Metro-North’s Danbury line and finally achieve permanent blockage of the use of state land in Wilton for the enormously disruptive-for-Wilton extension of Super 7.

That’s a trifecta of benefits to Wilton.