Developer suggests altering Fairfield's affordable housing rules

FAIRFIELD — A local developer is exploring a zoning change that, if approved, would alter the town’s affordable housing requirements.

Westway Road LLC hopes to work with the Affordable Housing Committee to propose an amendment that would allow builders to contribute a payment to Fairfield’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, instead of including affordable units in large complexes.

But the suggestion didn’t sit well with several Plan and Zoning commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting, with Vice Chair Mark Corcoran saying a payment-in-lieu would contradict the fundamental goal of the town’s inclusionary zoning regulation — to create mixed-income neighborhoods in Fairfield.

The company had originally been seeking a special exception to bypass the town’s affordable housing requirement at its condominium complex at 479 Westway Road in the Southport neighborhood. As an alternative, the company wanted to pay into the trust fund.

The special exception was ultimately withdrawn Tuesday, however, with the developer’s legal team instead deciding to pursue a general amendment on the topic.

The current townwide inclusionary zoning regulation requires any new residential development with 10 or more units to designate at least 10 percent of those units as affordable to families with incomes at or below 80 percent of the median area income. This regulation was enacted by the Plan and Zoning Commission in 2015 by request of the Affordable Housing Committee to meet affordable housing needs in Fairfield.

The regulation also aims to move the town closer to reaching the state-mandated minimum on affordable housing necessary to apply for a moratorium on the 8-30g statute. This statute provides that in towns with below 10-percent affordable housing stock, private developers can bypass town zoning laws if they designate a certain percentage of their units as affordable.

At the meeting, Westway Road’s attorney Raymond Rizio initially argued that because the 16-unit development was approved prior to the enactment of the inclusionary zoning regulation, they should be allowed to obtain a special exception to the affordable housing requirement.

The requirement, Rizio explained, would obligate the company to sell two units at $205,000, compared to the $1,000,000 rate of the other 14. This would pose problems, he argued, when it came to pricey operating and renovation expenses that everyone in the complex would be expected to contribute equally to, putting affordable housing occupants at risk of foreclosure.

As a solution, the developer requested the commission allow them to give $600,000 to the town’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund in lieu of establishing these units on-site.

The trust fund was established by the Affordable Housing Committee and the RTM in March 2018 to “help facilitate the development of affordable housing in Fairfield,” according to the Committee’s 2019 annual report.

It collects an inclusionary zoning fee of 0.5 percent on new construction and building additions. This fee took effect in October 2018, and as of December, it had accrued a balance of $78,232. The committee plans to establish an application process through which developers can request to use these funds for affordable housing projects.

Rizio argued a payment-in-lieu, which other nearby towns have already established, could be leveraged to establish more than two affordable housing units.

Mark Barnhart, the town’s Director of Community and Economic Development, also vouched for this decision on behalf of the Affordable Housing Committee, agreeing the payment could create more than two units, as well as grants and loans that could contribute to more affordable housing in Fairfield.

The commission, however, pushed back on the request for a special exception, arguing that doing so would set a precedent for other developers to request the same.

“What you’re describing is, I think, a situation that would apply to any affordable-rate, for-sale unit in a complex that has common charges,” said Commission Chair Matthew Wagner.

While a payment to the trust fund might indeed aid the development of affordable housing in town, Corcoran said, it wouldn’t ensure that such units are developed in the Southport neighborhood, undermining the inclusionary zoning regulation’s goal of creating mixed-income neighborhoods.

After much discussion, Rizio suggested they withdraw their application for a special exception without prejudice, and instead work with the Affordable Housing Committee to propose a general amendment that would allow for a payment-in-lieu option.

This, he hoped, would assuage some of the committee’s concerns about setting an unregulated precedent through a one-off approval.

The commission accepted this withdrawal, and Wagner thanked Rizio for bringing the issue to their attention and starting a discussion about whether such an amendment would be the right path for the town.

“Things have come up tonight that I haven’t considered before,” Wagner said. “Don’t feel like you’ve wasted time. We’ve vetted the issues and talked about things thoroughly, and we learned a lot tonight.”

According to Barnhart, the timeline for such an amendment is still indefinite. He said that the Affordable Housing Committee will likely begin by revisiting an amendment draft that they’d previously written for discussion purposes.

“That will probably serve as a good starting point for further conversation,” Barnhart said.