In the Suburbs: Fairfield needs affordable housing

I’ve learned from public relations work I’ve done on proposed commercial property and independent and assisted living developments in Connecticut and Westchester County, N.Y., to take nothing for granted when it comes to public sentiment. People seem to emerge when developers least expect it and the plans and proposed plans for two affordable housing projects in Fairfield are no exception.

From what I’ve read, there have been a lot of concerned residents in both of the areas where these developments have been proposed. And one thing I can always say about Fairfielders is that if they aren’t happy, they will always find a way to let developers and lawyers know.

The first of two proposed projects, both by the same developer, is Merritt44, a 94-unit housing complex near Exit 44 off the Merritt Parkway. That complex would include 29 apartments that would qualify as affordable housing. It was submitted and approved under 8-30g, a state statute that dictates the only way officials can deny the proposal is by proving the project poses a threat to public health and safety that outweighs the need for affordable housing.

Chris Smith, the attorney for the developer has suggested “Fears and speculations are no reason for denial,” acknowledging concern and anger among nearby residents. He added that “The planned development could fill a need in town for housing for young professionals, including teachers and first responders, as well as seniors.”

Once I recognized that the development would be built north of the parkway, just beyond the Hotel Hi-Ho in a space originally proposed for a medical building, I really had little concern about the impact of this complex on our Fairfield community. The rendering by architect John Guedes, painted a very attractive picture of the new community and its location didn’t seem to pose a traffic issue or major congestion. The architect also explained that a nearby hill would largely block lights from apartments.

While I never lived up in that area, I know from traveling Black Rock Turnpike that there was a nursery across the street from the hotel and there is no housing on the right hand side because of the reservoir. Single-family housing on the left side doesn’t really begin for at least a half mile and most of the homes are set back. While I can certainly appreciate resident concern, I would hardly consider the project an eyesore that might impact property values. Even with an increase in traffic on Black Rock Turnpike, cars from the new development would increase north of the busy intersections below the parkway.

For the second affordable housing project, just two exits north on the Merritt Parkway at Park Avenue, the same developer and architect has proposed a 120-apartment complex of one- and two-bedroom units near Sacred Heart University and a nearby medical center just at the entrance to the Merritt Parkway north.

The suggested six-story building on 2.4 acres would offer a mix of 36, one- and two-bedroom affordable housing units and Guedes, the architect, indicated that “the building would have a design similar to nearby Sacred Heart University structures.”

It’s been touted as a “convenient and more affordable opportunity for educators, nurses, graduate students and seniors to live closer to the nearby medical center and Sacred Heart University.”

Since I am in that area all summer teaching in a program at Sacred Heart, I know pretty much where the proposed location would be and can’t see a building like this turning the area into an eyesore. But again, I certainly can empathize with any resident concerns.

The developer had originally proposed an 80-unit complex, which was voted down by the Town Plan and Zoning Commission early this year. This latest proposal was made under the same 8-30g state statute as the Merritt 44 project.

Some of the concerns neighbors raised about this proposal are parking, traffic, water, property values and its potential impact on the Merritt Parkway’s aesthetics. One resident also challenged its lack of handicapped accessible units.

Recent coverage pointed out that 8-30g applies to towns where less than 10 percent of housing stock meets state criteria to be recognized as affordable.

In June, Planning Director Jim Wendt said 13 affordable housing developments have been authorized in Fairfield since 2012, totaling 478 total units, 214 of which are marked as below-market-rate units.

State Rep. Jennifer Leeper, D-132, who was part of First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick’s recent housing panel, emphasized the need for affordable housing within the Fairfield community, particularly for seniors. “We all live in Connecticut and Fairfield by choice,” she said. “We want to ensure that it continues to be a wonderful place.”

I remember when we first moved here in 1982, seeking affordable housing and a reasonable commute to Stamford for me and Norwalk for my wife. It was a real stretch to afford the $850 monthly rental for our home.

While I may represent a small majority, I would certainly like to see the town housing commission approve the proposed new developments and other new ideas because Fairfield is a wonderful community to live in. Nevertheless, I certainly remain sensitive to other neighbors who have concerns about these projects. In the end, I hope they come around.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at stevengaynes44@gmail.com.