Planned Development Impacts
The Conservancy has invested considerable effort this year in trying to convince Fairfield’s Town Plan and Zone Commission to follow its Plan of Conservation and Development to protect the Merritt—the town’s largest historic place-- by scaling back two oversized and poorly planned developments proposed for approval. Both applications risk destroying the Merritt Parkway’s scenic, park-like setting that the State is investing $350,000 million to recapture.
If built at 4185 Black Rock Turnpike, a six story, 94 unit residential building --six times the size of the Hi-Ho – will be dumped into view of drivers immediately adjacent to the southbound Exit 45 entrance ramp. Equally bad is 5545 Park Avenue, an 82’ high, 120 unit box-like residential building at Exit 47 poking up through the Merritt’s treeline from a massive retaining wall.
The results of our efforts have been mixed. TPZ approved 4185 Black Rock Turnpike as proposed in April, a decision that has been appealed by neighbors. But on August 24, TPZ conditioned its approval of 5545 Park Avenue on reducing its size by two stories, changing its color scheme to blend with the parkway’s tree cover, and introducing additional planting to screen it from view as minimum mitigations to reduce the building’s visual impact.
What is behind this recent uptick in super-sized buildings on small lots zoned for single family houses? These applications are proposed under “the affordable housing land use appeals procedure,” a statute known as 8-30g, originally enacted in 1989 with the worthy goal of lowering housing costs. Like other public policy of its era, it offered market incentives to effect change in the built environment, but unlike successful programs offering financial carrots such as tax credits, 8-30g was an outlier, structured to attract developers by offering relief from sticks – namely local zoning regulations that would otherwise impose reasonable restrictions on the size and scale of the development. Misguidedly conceived to give developers legal leverage to reach consensus with local planning officials, it instead proved to be hardwired for contention. After failing to have any measurable impact on reducing housing costs within its first decade, its goals were changed to accomplish quantifiable results in the numbers of affordable units placed in service. After 32 years on the books its results are anemic, creating and leveraging less than 1% of the state’s housing stock as affordable based on statistics and definitions by the 8-30g’s most ardent defenders.
The Conservancy’s opposition to massive substandard buildings proposed under this deeply flawed statute has given 8-30g’s advocates the misconception that the Conservancy opposes affordable housing. We do not. But the 69 units of below market rate housing – the total proposed in these two projects -- cannot be realized under 8-30g without cramming an additional 145 market rate units onto the sites. Increasing densities to exceed most neighborhoods in Brooklyn without providing basic amenities available in developed urban areas such as nearby public parks, recreation centers, sidewalks and access to public transportation is not rational planning. Parking-dominant site plans for these buildings leave no room for normal on-site green space. It is completely absent at 5545 Park Avenue, and a small, token play area at 4185 Black Rock Turnpike is an inadequate substitute on a site 1.6 miles from the nearest bus stop along a state highway lacking sidewalks. Under any other circumstance, zoning boards do not and should not approve this kind of development.
Our experience here has been challenging and frustrating. By imposing a greater legal burden of proof for denial of applications on local planning and zoning boards, 8-30g gags voices of commissioners and creates little incentive to request application materials beyond what is submitted. That was our experience in both cases, when the applicant’s minimal visual materials did not show the actual sizes of the buildings in relation to the parkway (and at 5545 Park Avenue misleadingly presented it as smaller). In fact, the Commission’s request for a drawing showing the profile of the development at 5545 Park Avenue relative to the Merritt was ignored by the applicant. As a result, the renderings above showing their real impact on the Merritt were generated by Conservancy Vice-Chair David Scott Parker, FAIA without cooperation from the applicants.
The Merritt is an exceptional historic asset as a scenic gateway for New England for tourism, a linear park to drive for pleasure or commuting, and an essential pollinator pathway within our region. 8-30g places all this at risk. We believe that you understand that our time is better used to ensure excellence in the parkway’s continued revitalization rather than fighting oversized development. The Merritt needs to be protected from 8-30g in its present form. You can protect the Merritt and, indeed, demand better mechanisms for addressing Connecticut’s affordable housing crisis by contacting your state legislators and local elected officials to express your support for amending 8-30g to prohibit its application on lots abutting the Merritt Parkway Historic District right-of-way and also to create more effective mechanisms for bolstering Connecticut’s affordable housing inventory, by offering your testimony at public hearings, and of course, contributing to support our legal costs.