Hudspeth in Wilton: One large catch with a possible double whammy

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

Connecticut statute Section 8-30g allows developers to proceed with their development without complying with local zoning laws except those proven to protect a substantial public interest in health or safety -- provided that a developer dedicates 30% of its project’s units for 40 years to affordable housing as defined under that statute.

Sec. 8-30g applies to every municipality unless 10% or more of its housing stock is affordable or it is granted a moratorium by the state Department of Housing. As of 2020, just 3.58 percent of Wilton’s housing stock (232 out of 6,475 total units) qualified as affordable. So Sec. 8-30g applies to Wilton unless Wilton is granted a moratorium. Moratoria last for four years, and Wilton’s most recent one expired in 2019.

To obtain a moratorium, municipalities must meet certain very detailed and data-driven criteria that are multifaceted and complex and are expressed together in a required minimum point count. Under those criteria, Wilton doesn’t qualify for a new moratorium. Hence, we should expect the number of housing developments presented to Wilton P&Z using Sec. 8-30g to increase and to have higher housing density and be larger in scale and scope, as recent pre-applications have illustrated. P&Z has been admirably proactive in working with proposals made to manage density, design, scale, and scope at appropriate locations to enable more housing diversity and affordability.

However, even if all of these recent development plans were actually built, Wilton still wouldn’t begin to achieve the 10% standard. To do that, developments would have to add over 2,000 apartment units with 30 percent of them affordable, and that’s simply not in the cards right now. And Sec. 8-30g’s 10 percent standard is unlikely to be revised downward by the legislature given legislators’ stated positions on housing legislation during the 2021 legislative session.

Is there any other solution given that Wilton can’t qualify for a new moratorium based on those complex points calculations? Maybe.

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice’s proposals for 30 percent affordable housing development at the Wilton Center train station parking lot and on certain town-owned land are a great way to advance the needle, but they can only go a modest portion of the way to the 10% goal, of course. Building significant new developments composed entirely of affordable housing would get us there, but Wilton would need 500 new affordable units to reach the goal, assuming no existing affordable units expire. That’s not impossible in terms of land availability given that Avalon’s 100 attractive rental units opposite Ring’s End occupy only ten acres. But the key constraints on such developments remain land-acquisition costs and access to adequate sewer and water infrastructure.

Therein, though, lies an interesting fact uniquely applicable to Wilton: When Super 7 was proposed to extend from Grist Mill Road through Wilton to Danbury, the state acquired significant land in Wilton for the right-of-way. Some of that land has been dedicated to beautiful nature trails. Other land has been leased to Wilton for vital infrastructure and amenity space, such as the DPW storage area and playing fields at Allen’s Meadows, and those arrangements should of course not be altered.

However, excluding those areas still leaves other significant tracts of appropriately located buildable and vacant state-owned land in the Route 7 corridor that our recent excellently drafted POCD identifies as suitable for congregate housing development. Our state has made a major priority the expansion of affordable housing across the state and especially in Fairfield County towns. So providing this unused land to our town for exclusively affordable housing development with protection to our town against default liability should be a ready sell to the state, right?

There’s one large catch: While our town long ago put a stake through the heart of Super 7 extension plans, apparently some in powerful quarters still hold out hope for that extension. So while these folks have no issue with using the right-of-way for recreational uses that can be easily undone for highway construction, they don’t want to see major permanent structures built on this state-owned land, even as important as affordable housing is for reasons of equity to achieve laudable policy objectives and also to encourage young people to live here.

What does this mean for Wilton? The opportunity finally to kill Super 7 extension by pressing the state to live up to its own affordable housing pronouncements as we work to meet the 10 percent affordable housing goal that releases us from Sec. 8-30g’s harshest clutches.

And wouldn’t that be a very impressive double whammy.