Intense discussions, but no decision on Fairfield affordable housing project
FAIRFIELD — It was a busy evening for the Fairfield Housing Authority, as it presented to both the Board of Selectmen and Conservation Commission on Wednesday night. Neither meeting led to any decisions, as the Board of Selectmen has no voting power over the Authority, and the Conservation Commission postponed its vote until Aug. 7 due to the presentation of new information.
The Housing Authority has been under scrutiny in recent weeks as it attempts to move forward with the construction of an affordable housing complex at 980 High St. Residents have been fighting the proposal, claiming that it will disrupt the neighborhood economically, environmentally and historically.
Board of Selectmen
The Board of Selectmen requested that the Housing Authority present on Wednesday to clarify its mission, policies and procedures. Because the Board of Selectmen has no jurisdiction over the Housing Authority, this was not a voting or approval item, but rather a discussion that the selectmen wished to open up.
At the meeting, selectmen questioned Housing Authority Executive Director Carol Martin, as well as the Authority’s attorney Bryan LeClerc, about the group. Martin explained that the Housing Authority is the single member of the Fairfield Housing Corporation, a nonprofit set up to purchase land on behalf of the Authority. This arrangement, she said, is standard around the country so that authorities can bypass state purchasing laws and public hearings.
The selectmen were skeptical about this setup, expressing concern that it reflects an intent to discount public opinion.
“That doesn’t sound the most transparent,” commented First Selectman Michael Tetreau.
In response, Martin reiterated that it is standard practice nationally for housing authorities to set up development corporations because of financial regulations that make it difficult for them to purchase land. She also emphasized that the Housing Authority maintains total transparency in its proceedings.
“We want you folks to know that we post our agenda, and the meeting times are on the town calendar,” Martin noted.
The selectmen also inquired about the Housing Authority’s funding sources. As a separate entity from the town, the Authority is independent financially from Fairfield’s funds. Martin explained that it is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), as well as private lenders and investors.
Funds for the $2.1 million purchase of the High Street property, Martin said, came from a combination of an outside investment from the Sasco Creek Development Corporation and the Fairfield Housing Corporation’s own $1.2 million that it earned from development fees on Pinetree, another one of its properties.
Tetreau brought up the fact that the Housing Authority was previously in debt to HUD, and had negotiated an agreement in 2012 to remain afloat and periodically pay off loans. He asked why the Authority hasn’t used that $1.2 million to pay off debts rather than develop new properties.
Martin responded that the Housing Authority and HUD reached the decision together to continue developing more properties in order to serve the most people.
“The business decision is to create more affordable housing,” Martin said. “HUD’s in the mission of creating affordable housing in local communities, so we were in line when we were negotiating.”
John Madeo, Vice Chair of the Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners, also spoke, asserting that the Housing Authority board is a volunteer, nonprofit group with the sole aim of aiding low-income communities. He contended that he resents the implication that any member of the Housing Authority board is in the business of making money at the expense of others.
“I’m very happy to have a discussion about the substantive merits of the project, but I hope we can address the merits without the implication the board members are doing this to enrich themselves,” Madeo said.
The selectmen concluded the meeting with a discussion of their concerns about the trend of low-income housing development in Fairfield on a larger scale. They discussed their requirements to meet state affordable housing standards, as well as issues with 8-30g proposals, which by state statute allow affordable housing developments to bypass local regulations.
Selectman Chris Tymniak asserted that he is concerned about these developments springing up in neighborhoods where they don’t fit.
“I don’t like what’s going on,” Tymniak said. “I have yet to see an 8-30g proposal that the neighborhood supports.”
Selectman Edward Bateson agreed, noting that while he is in favor of creating more state-mandated affordable housing, he wants to make sure it is done in ways that are transparent and community-supported.
“I understand that we’re below the state standard to provide affordable housing,” Bateson explained. “But I want to make sure that what we’re doing passes the smell test.”
Later Wednesday night, the Housing Authority entered a room packed with High Street residents to testify at a public hearing in front of the Conservation Commission to obtain an inland wetlands permit.
Conservation Commission Chair Kevin Gumpper announced at the beginning of the hearing that due to the upcoming presentation of new documents by the Housing Authority, the commission would not take a vote on the issue until its Aug. 7 meeting in order to give staff time to review these documents.
Before the Housing Authority began its presentation, attorney Joel Green presented an intervention petition on behalf of Fairfield Neighbors United, a new corporation formed by High Street residents opposing the complex. Gumpper noted that because of the new evidence presented, Green would have the opportunity to question the Authority’s witnesses at the Aug. 7 hearing rather than Wednesday evening.
LeClerc led the Housing Authority’s presentation, which brought in various experts to testify that the proposed complex would not damage the wetlands and should therefore be granted the necessary permits to begin construction.
Bryan Baker, the project’s lead engineer, walked the commission through his plans and spoke about the procedures in place for storm drainage, wetland replenishment and erosion and sediment control. William Kenny, the team’s soil scientist, then discussed the layout of the property and its vegetation and wildlife. He asserted that the project would not adversely affect the wetland or its species. Finally, licensed environmental professional Jay Soltis presented the results of his investigation into pesticides on the property, concluding that he had found no pesticides that could be discharged into the wetland during construction.
Throughout the hearing, residents in the audience grew visibly frustrated with the technical nature of the proceedings, many scoffing openly and some commenting out of turn that these details did not assuage their larger concerns about the project. At one point, Gumpper paused the proceedings to emphasize to the public that this was a hearing specifically about wetlands, and environmental details would remain its focus.
“To those of you in the audience who are rolling your eyes over this discussion of wetlands, this is what this discussion is about,” Gumpper asserted.
Correspondingly, at the onset of the public comment section of the hearing, Gumpper noted that speakers should only come to the microphone to talk about wetlands and specific environmental concerns. Only two residents rose to speak, asking questions about the property’s proposed pavement and snow evacuation procedures.
The meeting adjourned with an agreement to reconvene on Aug. 7, at which time Green will question the Authority’s witnesses, the public will have additional chances to speak and the commission will take a final vote on the inland wetlands permit. Gumpper suggested that before then, commission members visit the High Street property and see the proposed area in person.