Update, Wednesday, Nov. 30
After further discussion and two motions Tuesday evening, the Planning and Zoning commission decided to approve the N. Salem Rd. affordable housing project proposal albeit with extensive modifications.
All but two members -- John Katz and Michael Autuori -- supported the motion. Katz and Autuori had set a prior motion to deny the application based on a lack of credible information and the extent of the safety concerns at the site.
Other members of the commission, however, warned against an outright denial for the purposes of avoiding a court case -- in cases of 8-30g (the affordable housing statute), it is up to the commission to defend any denial based on the information it was given.
"I think we're going to find ourselves in court defending something we're not going to win," Commissioner Nelson Gelfman said of the possible denial.
Conditions are being drafted within the next two weeks by the planning department to define the exact parameters of the approval.
Issues mentioned were the density of the project, sightlines on the state highway, infiltration of water into the soil and parking considerations among others.
The applicant, Eppoliti Realty Co., still needs a permit from the DOT for encroachment on the road, and the success of the application is also based on whether or not that goes through.
"We do have an obligation to find a way to approve this," Commissioner Joseph Fossi said. "By lowering the density of the the site, it can be a viable project."
"[State statute] 8-30g is our roadmap to determine this application," vice-chair Patrick Walsh said. "We have to look for reasonable changes."
On the surface, the affordable housing application for 7 and 9 N. Salem Rd. seems fairly straightforward: 16 units are proposed on about one acre in a residential part of town under section 8-30g of the state statute, which covers affordable housing.
But members of the Planning and Zoning Commission agreed Tuesday evening that with the number of expert opinions on public record and the amount of competing information on a number of aspects of the application, it is one of the "densest" in recent history.
"I can't remember an application when we've had more trouble wrapping our arms around the data," Commission Chair Rebecca Mucchetti said. "It is the densest application I can recall."
Section 8-30g allows projects with at least 30 percent of their units declared "affordable" compared to the state median income to pass more easily through the planning and zoning process. In fact, the burden of proof is on the town to show that health or safety concerns outweigh the need for affordable housing in the area, and Ridgefield will almost never be without a need for affordable housing, some say.
The application is not without possible threats to safety and welfare in the form of increased traffic, drainage issues, soil infiltration issues and emergency parking, but with three or more experts butting heads from one aspect to the other, the commission has had trouble coming to terms with what data to follow.
The Inland Wetland Board -- consisting of the same members as P&Z -- approved the alternative proposal from the Eppoliti Realty Co. with at least a 19-foot setback from the wetlands on the property with much less discussion.
When it came to Planning and Zoning, though, the commission struggled to find a core issue to work with. The commission has until Dec. 30 to make a decision to either approve the project, approve it with modifications or deny it outright -- in the cases of the latter two Eppoliti would then have the opportunity to resubmit the application with needed changes.
"To me it comes down to density," Commissioner Joseph Fossi said. "The parking, the [traffic] sightlines -- we'd need to cut density from 16 [units] to 12 in order to approve."
Others said a decrease in density wouldn't solve some of the bigger issues. Whether or not cutting density would increase safety did not appear set in stone.
The traffic sightlines along N. Salem Rd. do not meet DOT guidelines, but DOT has made exceptions in the past -- one possibility is for the commission to approve the project under the condition that this exception is made.
As for parking, the application with 29 spaces, two handicapped spaces and six compact spaces did not seem adequate to members of the commission, and the design of the parking lot presented concerns for emergency access.
"We need affordable housing -- kids can't afford to live here anymore," Commissioner Peter Chipouras said. "But I can't see 16 cars, 32 cars coming in and out of that site."
"It's a dense site that doesn't work," Chipouras continued.
A number of water issues also plague the area -- ask any of the neighbors who attested to drainage issues at the public hearings earlier. Water leaves the proposed property and collects in neighbors' yards, and although experts said this would not become worse with the new additions, residents were worried.
Soil experts could not agree on some of the infiltration issues on the property, as well, and some of the infiltration systems proposed to mitigate the issues could have an effect on the foundations of the proposed buildings -- a clear safety issue, according to the commission.
"The issues certainly outweigh the need for affordable housing if in fact they're right," Commissioner John Katz said.
Whether or not these issues warrant such concern will be discussed further next Tuesday, Nov. 29.