The Planning & Zoning Commission recently gave the Ridgefield Affordable Housing Committee a green light to apply for a state grant which will be used to study the feasibility of creating an incentive housing zone in the Branchville section of town.
During the P&Z Commission meeting on Feb. 5, Dave Goldenberg, chairman of the AHC, told the commission that his committee intends to apply for a $20,000 grant through the state's Housing for Economic Growth program, also known as “Home Connecticut,” to study Branchville's potential for transit oriented development, including affordable housing.
"Branchville is like that spare room you’re always meaning to fix up but never get around to," Goldenberg said. "Periodically the town makes plans for it, but those plans never seem to come to fruition."
Goldenberg said the 1999 Plan of Conservation and Development called for promoting Branchville as “a secondary focal point,” and recommended that the town conduct a Branchville Area Study. In addition a SWRPA/HVCEO Route 7 Corridor Travel Options Implementation Plan conducted in 2000 called for enhancing rail service and exploring transit-oriented development, or TOD, along the corridor, including in Branchville.
What's more, a Branchville Village Plan adopted by the commission in 2002 envisioned "a new village zone," Goldenberg said. Although that study was not focused on housing, it noted that Branchville "has the potential to be a major multi-modal transportation node,” he said.
"With growth pressures on the town, with increasingly congested roads, with Branchville’s location serving as an ideal transit hub, with movement toward electrifying the Danbury line—and with some state funds available for planning—it’s time at last to re-imagine Branchville as the second town center we have long wanted it to be," Goldenberg told the commission.
The Home Connecticut program is designed to give towns greater control over their destiny in terms of meeting the requirements of the state's Affordable Housing Act, which mandates that a minimum of 10% of a community's housing stock be designated as "affordable."
Offering reimbursement of up to $2,000 per unit for qualifying developments, the program puts towns in control of the build-out of affordable housing and promotes development near transportation hubs. This is in contrast to affordable housing statute 8-30g, which gives private developers the ability to side-step local zoning laws and build housing that is sometimes denser than the town desires for a particular location.
'Incentive Housing Zone'
Goldenberg emphasized that the grant application "does not require that the town actually implement an Incentive Housing Zone, only that we study it."
"The zone’s minimum density requirement may in fact be too high for Branchville to support," he said. "But that does not stop us from creating a zone of our own that will allow appropriate density and development."
Should the town proceed with establishing an Incentive Housing Zone, any affordable housing built within that zone would be exempt from 8-30g, but at the same it would count toward the 10% requirement.
Commission member Joe Fossi recalled that the town had applied unsuccessfully for a similar state grant to study Branchville several years ago.
'Deja Vu All Over Again'
"This is Deja Vu all over again — I was on the subcommittee from P&Z when we teamed up with Wilton to get the exact same grant... " Fossi said. "It was for a TOD zone... and we teamed up with Wilton... for the specific reason of getting two towns together so we would have more clout in Hartford. But it didn't work out the way we wanted..."
Chairman of the Planning & Zoning Commission Rebecca Mucchetti recalled the initiative Fossi was referring to, but noted that it was "for another program" and not the Home Connecticut program.
Mucchetti said while she had no issue with the Housing Committee applying for the grant and studying the potential for a new zone, she was remiss to give Town Planner Betty Brosius the additional task of having to fill out all the paperwork, considering Brosius' current heavy workload.
"Betty already has an over-burdoned work schedule ... and, while I am not hesitant to support the initiative, I am loath to put any more work on Betty's desk... " Mucchetti said.
Goldenberg said his committee would take care of the grant application and added that they might be able to get assistance from state agencies including the Partnership for Strong Communities.
"It's a very simple grant," he said.
Time to Resurrect a Task Force?
Goldenberg said he hopes to resurrect the informal task force which the board of selectmen appointed in 2010 to study potential further development along Route 7, including Branchville. The task force included representatives from AHC, P&Z, the Economic Development Committee and other town agencies and worked with neighboring Redding to apply for a TOD study grant from the state.
"The proposal placed high, but was not funded due to competition from other, larger towns and cities with TOD proposals," he said. "After this, the task force came to a halt."
This, he said, was a mistake for two reasons.
"First, the grant denial was not a true dead end in exploring the future of Branchville," he said. "And more importantly, the role of Branchville in Ridgefield’s growth is too important a matter to ignore."
Goldenberg said establishing the new zone will require a "collaborative process... involving multiple stake holders in the community. It's not just simply a hearing to get people's opinions, but to actively engage them in the process and include their ideas and vision."
He said what his committee is envisioning is "something more than an affordable housing proposition... it's also an economic development proposition and an open space proposition..." He said the town's Economic Development Committee has already expressed support for the proposal.
Brosius clarified that any housing that is developed under the program would "count toward meeting the 10 percent requirement... but would not count toward a moratorium," as the units "won't count as 8-30g."
"What we're talking about here is a predevelopment proposal," Brosius said, adding that she was in support of the committee applying for the grant and potentially studying a zone change for the area.
Brosius said she doubted the state would grant an IHZ zone for Branchville, "due to the density." She added, however, that there was nothing stopping the town from exploring the possibility of establishing mixed-use zone incorporating commercial or retail, "as has been discussed in the past."
'We Can't Force Growth'
Commission member Phil Mische took issue with Goldenberg's characterization that Branchville is like a spare room that the town never gets around to fixing up and that the various town agencies have been too "siloed" to be effective in coming up with a plan. He pointed out that the commission has explored numerous options for Branchville in the past, but that none so far have resonated with the community.
"I don't think you know how much work there has been in this direction..." Mische said. " ...we've talked about Branchville a lot... and I'm feeling a little like you're pushing us out and saying we're not paying attention. We really do want these things to happen, but to a large degree, it is a function of someone coming forward with an application, with an idea... "
"We can't force growth from this side, the growth has to come from the community... " Mische continued. "It's not that Branchville is the room in our house that we haven't worked on... there just hasn't been enough critical mass, enough momentum..."
Goldenberg said a study will likely cost more than $20,000, so if the state offers the town the grant, it will be up to the committee to secure the remaining needed funding through private donations. He said the study could range anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000.
The commission voted 6-2 in support of the committee's plan to apply for the grant, with commission members Michael Autuori and Nelson Gelfman opposing.