Controversial affordable housing project approved in Fairfield with conditions

The former Masonic Temple, site of a planned affordable housing development, at 131 Beach Road in Fairfield, Conn. on Tuesday, September 2, 2020.

The former Masonic Temple, site of a planned affordable housing development, at 131 Beach Road in Fairfield, Conn. on Tuesday, September 2, 2020.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — The town’s Plan and Zoning Commission has approved plans for a controversial affordable housing apartment building near town hall — but with some big stipulations.

The first was that the building cannot be taller than 36 feet. The plans currently propose a five-story, 60-foot high building in the 131 Beach Road location — a 0.65 acre lot where a masonic temple currently stands. It would contain 40 apartments, 12 of which would be set aside as affordable housing.

The second stipulation requires the developer have the Police Commission approve removing six roadside parking spaces. The traffic report recommended it to create an adequate sight line when exiting the facility.

The commission also voted against an amendment that would amend current zoning regulations to create a special inclusionary zone.

“As these regulation amendments are not necessary for us to approve or not approve the 8-30g, I just don’t think there’s any plus side for us in approving such an amendment,” Commissioner Mark Corcoran said.

Town Planning Director Jim Wendt, pointed out the amendment was tailored for the proposed development and noted the applicant doesn’t have to amend zoning regulations for an affordable housing application to be approved under the law.

The application for the five-story building was filed under the state’s affordable housing statute 8-30g. This state regulation allows developers of affordable housing to bypass municipal laws and regulations in order to get such housing into communities that have fewer affordable units than the state recommends, which is about 10 percent.

The proposed development has seen broad opposition. A petition created by the Old Post Road Area Association requesting the developer scale down the project had more than 1,600 signatures as of Wednesday night.

Opponents claim the development was incongruous with the historic neighborhood and would have a negative impact on the adjacent historic district. Neighbors also worry about more traffic in what they call an already dangerous area due to the project, which was estimated at 218 car trips on an average weekday, according to a traffic study conducted by the developer.

“I find this application is unsafe with respect to the line of sight for the existing premises for the application, and that the application improperly and irreparably damages the integrity of a Fairfield valuable historic district,” Commissioner Tom Noonan said in a prepared statement. “These issues are amply supported in the record, and would outweigh the need for affordable housing, but the conditions of approval should remedy these issues in my judgment.”

In addition to the height and parking spaces stipulation, Noonan also proposed limiting the development to a total of three stories, with adequate parking.

Noonan pointed out that a police official and neighbors have opposed the removal of any on-street parking on the premises. He also noted that, although the developer argued the parking spots did not need to be removed, the traffic expert he hired recommended they do so.

“Obviously, the traffic expert felt that obtaining a safe line of sight warranted the removal of on-street parking, regardless of the alleged frequency of the parking,” he said, later adding cars visiting the building should be taken into account.

Noonan said Fairfield’s historic district is not an afterthought, adding Fairfield spends time and resources enhancing and protecting it. He noted the applicant admitted the building would be visible from the historic district, and said the visibility would damage the integrity of it.

“During the public comment portion, there was comments from experts and laypeople, that this building would impair the historic district,” Noonan said. “I accept that testimony and I find it credible.”

If constructed as proposed, Noonan said, the development would be one of tallest buildings in Fairfield. He said the applicant did not present any rebuttal to the testimony that the development would impair the historic district.

“The applicant knew or should have known that preservation of the historic district would be a predominant issue for this application, and their failure to present evidence spoke volumes — potentially conceding the issue,” he said.

After more than an hour of discussion, the commission voted 6 to 1 in favor of approving Noonan’s amendment to approve with stipulations. The lone dissenter was Commissioner Steven Levy.

“Though I do favor having an 8-30g application approved at this site, my no is only because I think our condition is a little too restrictive,” he said.

Joshua.LaBella@hearstmediact.com