After several motions made this Tuesday and the last, the Ridgefield Planning and Zoning Commission approved last night
The commission's final approval, though, came under circumstances unforeseen -- a commissioner's alleged misstep according to the state statute may have compromised the town's legal standing in the long run.
According to state statute 8-30g -- the "affordable housing" law -- building proposals such as this one with 30 percent or more affordable units are exempt from local zoning laws, and the commission can only enact "reasonable changes" to the development to protect public interests in health, safety or other matters.
The applicant, developer Patrick Downend's 593 Main Street Ridgefield LLC, had originally proposed 16 units to be built on just over an acre of land located across from the Casagmo Condominiums on Main St. -- although Downend made several modifications to the plan during the process, the commission's main concern rested on the number of units.
In this case, members of the commission felt a reduction in the number of units would be sufficient to protect these public interests -- working with eight members (Commissioner George Hanlon recused himself), the commission approved a 13-unit development after voting down applications for 12 units and 16 units respectively.
All except Commissioner Michael Autuori supported the motion -- Autuori said last week that he couldn't support any motion for the Main St. development because of a lack of compliance with zoning laws and that the district was created as a contract between the town and the residents that should not be broken.
But zoning laws are not something a commission is allowed to consider when dealing with the affordable housing statute.
Therefore, the applicant requested Autuori's recusal from the proceedings because of a "predetermination" held by the commissioner. Autuori granted the recusal but denied any wrongdoing.
In response, members of the commission voted Tuesday night to approve all 16 units to avoid litigation based on Autuori's cause for recusal.
"Through collective bumbling, we've created an issue for ourselves that transcends a number of units," said Commissioner John Katz. "Our position going forth seems less and less defensible -- not less and less desirous, but less and less defensible."
Katz went on to call state statute 8-30g an "excrescence."
Philip Mische was the only commissioner Tuesday night to oppose the 16-unit application.
"We have to do the right thing for both the developer and the town," Mische said. "But an uphill climb has been steepened."
Commission Chair Rebecca Mucchetti noted the several modifications made to the property since the original proposal: a redesign to scale back, a more residential look, a parking lot in back rather than in front, an increase in screening, a compliance with setbacks, the recognition of a historic stone wall and a relocated infiltration system.
Mucchetti felt confident the project would be upheld on appeal on the basis of these modifications and the commission's actions.
"As we look at the project per se and the application per se, it is the town we're trying to protect here," Katz said. "This is a mess, and it is a mess that could inure to negative results for the town of Ridgefield."