Courts dismiss appeal for Fairfield affordable housing project

The Fairfield Housing Corporation is proposing an affordable housing complex on the 980 High Street property.

The Fairfield Housing Corporation is proposing an affordable housing complex on the 980 High Street property.

Humberto J. Rocha / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — Some residents are celebrating after the Connecticut Superior Court dismissed an appeal for an affordable housing project on High Street.

“Win one for the environment,” said Alexis Harrison, co-president of the Fairfielders Protecting Land and Neighborhoods.

The Fairfield Housing Corporation, which bought the 980 High Street property for $2.1 million, proposed to build a 40-unit affordable housing complex there in May of 2019. The units were planned to be built across five buildings and would include 32 affordable units.

While the plan was initially approved by the Town Planing and Zoning Commission, it was denied by the Inland Wetlands Agency due to the impact that the development would have on the wetlands. The organization suggested several alternatives that could minimize the impact on the wetlands.

The developer said there was no impact to the wetlands, according to court documents.

However, on appeal, the courts further upheld the wetlands agency’s decision stating, “The commission was unquestionably faced with a voluminous amount of evidence concerning the drainage system.”

Harrison cautioned there is still a chance for the project.

“This may be appealed further to the higher courts, but for now, the environment won,” Harrison said.

Carol Martin, executive director of the Fairfield Housing Authority, said the decision is disappointing especially since the need for affordable housing is so great.

“I am obviously disappointed especially because of the pandemic and Fairfield is in an affordable housing crisis for the most vulnerable residents,” Martin said. “Delays in local land use processes are fairly common, and I am looking forward to finding a solution because town residents need quality, accessible, affordable housing now more than ever.”

Martin said Fairfield had a supply shortage prior to the pandemic, but the pandemic has made it even worse, especially for affordable housing.

In May, Carla Miklos, Operation Hope’s executive director, announced there was a housing crisis and the effects of the pandemic have “sort of exacerbated” the issue of housing.

Fairfield falls short of the state’s effort to have at least 10 percent of the town’s housing stock classified as affordable. State statute 8-30g, allows developers to file affordable housing applications in towns that don’t meet this benchmark, which can skirt local laws and regulations. Towns must be able to prove traffic, safety or environmental concerns outweigh the need for the project.

The affordable housing complex on High Street was filled under an 8-30g application, however, it was proven to be too much of a detriment to the wetland.

“This application is denied without prejudice at this time due to feasible and prudent alternatives and lack of data,” the commission stated during the initial denial of the application on Oct 2, 2019, according to court documents. “It is the applicant’s burden to provide a complete application with minimized wetlands impacts. That is not the case at this time.”

The alternatives to avoid adverse impacts to the wetlands included a smaller-scale development to better protect the sensitive wetlands, a modified drainage proposal with drainage protection to the wetlands and proper phasing to address the avoidance of clogging, according to the court documents.

“Wetlands laws are intended to protect our precious natural resources,” she said. “Wetlands are increasingly important in times of severe weather patterns including hurricanes, flooding and drought, and they provide wildlife habitat in and around the wetlands.”

Community members who opposed the development also raised concerns about the wetlands, as well as the project’s potential impact on property values and historic character of the town.

Residents even started a GoFundMe that raised more than $15,000 to keep the Historic Judd Estate, another name for the site.

“A development of this magnitude — within a very limited space — will cause disruption to the vast wildlife in the area and deteriorate our family neighborhoods on so many levels,” the fundraiser read. “Hopefully we can come together and stop this proposed rezoning and development.”

The fundraiser applauded the initial denial, changing the message to “we are pleased with this decision to protect this urban wetlands, but the fight is far from over.”