June 18, 2018

Op-Ed: Higher Ground; More Thoughts From SECoast on the Old Lyme Affordable Housing Proposal

This Op-Ed was written by Gregory Stroud, Executive Director, SECoast

Location … location … location … as the saying goes. Why build an affordable housing development wedged beside the Exit 70 off-ramp — one of the more problematic stretches of road in southeastern Connecticut?

About a month ago, we put this directly to Hope Partnership and Women’s Institute in a meeting with board members and project leaders. And we didn’t really get a clear answer.

We do know that in the process of joining forces with Old Lyme Affordable Housing Corp., Hope Partnership promised to prioritize a project in Old Lyme. Tom Ortoleva and Lauren Ashe described an ongoing search for suitable properties, which apparently included a query at some point to the owners of Cherrystones, four miles to the south on Route 156.

Of course, it’s not often that a property of this size comes on the market at this price. And although we don’t know the exact terms of the proposed sale by Graybill Properties, it’s likely relatively modest.

But 16 Neck Road is not the only property at that general price point, and in fact we have been contacted by one local property owner with 20 acres already zoned for multifamily housing, and eager to sell. The property has ample green space, nearby jobs, a nearby park, and beach. In fact, the property has everything that many people would pay much more for, so what’s the catch?

At this point, we have to admit, we’re not entirely sure. We have asked… without any solid answer. What’s the appeal of a development at Exit 70?

Let’s start with the obvious. 16 Neck Road is slightly over 1500 feet from the nearby Halls Road shopping district. Take a look at Hope’s own literature on affordability, and you’ll see that affording a car is almost as much a burden for families as affording housing. Two cars make the burden that much greater. With tolls and higher gas taxes on the horizon (yes, they’re coming), easing the burden of transportation simply makes sense. Walkability–it’s a goal we support.

Unfortunately, although Old Lyme is obligated to provide affordable housing — also a goal we support — there just aren’t very many opportunities to build walkable affordable housing in Old Lyme.

But here’s the problem. When you re-zone, and build a project on a foundation of walkability, the developer, and the town, and the state (remember Route 156 is a state road) are obligated to provide a timely and safe walkable solution.

The easiest rebuttal would be to say that 16 Neck Road is no less walkable than most any other property in Old Lyme. Which is fair and true…. however… expectation matters, and brings with it not only a legal responsibility (liability), but also an ethical responsibility (safety).

People being people… children being children… the location being what it is… the cost of a second car being what it is… there is no doubt that with this development will come significant numbers of people daily, at peak times, and at night, crossing Route 156 near Exit 70 on foot.

This is not an extraneous argument, but rather an issue which gets to the heart to what 8-30g is all about — what’s called a “competition of goods.” By that, we don’t mean “goods” like groceries… we mean “goods” like worthy goals. In a legal sense, there are lots of worthy goals: The environment is a worthy goal. Pedestrian and traffic safety is a worthy goal. Historic preservation is a worthy goal. Open space is a worthy goal.

There is nothing in 8-30g which says that any of these goals no longer matter. In fact, just the opposite. The law states, that zoning approval may be based on “health, safety or other matters which the commission may legally consider.” 8-30g has not transformed the Zoning Commission into a Health and Safety Commission. It’s still Zoning.

But here’s the catch. All worthy goals — “goods,” if you will — aren’t created equal. And the law, 8-30g, establishes a clear priority for the purposes of Zoning approval. In the competition of goods, affordable housing has a higher priority than most. So… for example, Historic Preservation can still be considered, but Historic Preservation alone is unlikely to outweigh the public good of affordable housing.

In practice, the courts have established a trio of key competing concerns: Affordability, Health, Safety.

That said, 8-30g does not provide a shortcut on procedure and law. The applicant still needs to file the correct forms on issues small and large. The applicant still needs to gather the appropriate permits and approvals in a timely manner. Every portion of the law still applies. Zoning can still consider all the issues zoning normally considers. It’s just that after jumping through all the appropriate hoops, and after following all the governing laws, just like every other applicant and for everything other project, good or bad, the Town of Old Lyme pretty much can’t deny approval without a reason or set of reasons which “clearly outweigh the need for affordable housing.” In a legal sense, that’s a high bar. And it’s a bar we support.

Our frustration with Hope Partnership and Women’s Institute, and with proponents of the plan, is not with the issue of affordable housing. We strongly support that goal.

Our frustration is that proponents have chosen to ignore or breezily dismiss every single other worthy and competing goal, even the other portions of the trio… health and safety.

If the issue of pedestrian safety can be solved, then solve it. If you can’t solve it, then explain how the benefits of this particular project outweigh the dangers to pedestrians. That’s how 8-30g is meant to work. That’s a competition of goods. That’s an honest discussion.

After a month of asking, a responding Op-Ed by Hope Partnership in Lymeline, and an hour and a half of presentation, how is it possible that neither project leaders for Hope Partnership and Women’s Institute, nor their extraordinarily-experienced traffic advisor, have even once mentioned the words “pedestrian” or “pedestrian crossing”?

We’ve looked at the latest traffic report, submitted at the last minute, and there too, no mention of pedestrians. In fact, the latest study only makes matters worse, with the apparent failure to approve a stop sign in place of the yield at Exit 70. If I-95 traffic does not matter for this development, nothing is a clearer statement of the opposite than CTDOT’s unwillingness to add an extra stop sign (much less a traffic signal) at the intersection of Exit 70 and Route 156.

And when we questioned the basic accuracy of statements by Hope Partnership regarding Fire Code approvals, didn’t it amaze you — it amazed us — that not one proponent of the project bothered to raise a hand, to rebut our statement, or to care? We actually wanted to be proved wrong, and instead… crickets.

To be clear, if there is some balance between the cost and the procedures and requirements of Fire Code, why not just explain it? A competition of goods…here’s how we justify our approach…

We’ve heard numerous comments from proponents of the plan that the audience, and the commissioners themselves, were uncivil (or worse). And as much as we encouraged the public to turn out — 503 people is a remarkable number — we will not stand to defend the behavior and motives of every member of that audience. However…

Instead of focusing on hurt feelings, isn’t it remarkable how little concern has been shown for any other issue than affordability? Isn’t it remarkable that no one has said, you know, we care about fire safety, and we’ll get to the bottom of this? Isn’t it remarkable that no one has even bothered to say, you know, we care about children crossing a busy road, and we won’t build this project until we have a real solution in hand?

From our perspective, that’s what the moral high ground looks like. It’s a realization that the right choices, that moral decisions, are complicated; that even the best intentions and the better goals, often face worthy, competing, even contrary claims; that the heaviest and hardest moral burdens come often with challenging the ones and things you love the most.

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