December 15, 2018

Op-Ed: ‘A Project Without Solutions’: SECoast Director Questions Possible Approval of HOPE’s Affordable Housing Proposal

Editor’s Note: The author is the executive director of SECoast.

If the ends justify the means – and supporters are willing to overlook a flawed planning process, a dubious subdivide and shell corporations designed to skirt environmental regulation – we ask simply that the public and Zoning Commission members consider carefully the true character of those ends.

Surely, it’s never been the case that a failure of ends can justify a failure of means. But failed—and at best uncertain ends—are exactly what Hope Partnership, Women’s Institute, and attorney David Royston asked members of the Commission to approve last night in an effort to establish an aura of inevitability and bureaucratic momentum for the project.

At the very least, we expected the applicants to resolve those issues directly acknowledged under health and safety rules as the basis for their request for a continuance on July 11, 2018. Pedestrian safety? Months later, still crickets. Really, how is it possible, that plans submitted last night included a crosswalk between residences and the community center within the development, but failed to address pedestrian safety and a crossing of Route 156 to the nearby shopping district?

In defense, attorney Royston leans heavily on the letter of the law, but what he does not explain is that a street design can be defective—and thus unsafe—even if the design is otherwise legal. Years ago, the design for I-95 between Exit 70 and Exit 74 met the letter of law, but as we understand now, the geometry of the roadway was fatally flawed. Oh the irony, that we might repeat a similar mistake in the very same location.

We understand that many of the numerous issues of health and safety considered separately may not rise to the high bar of outweighing the real public good of affordable housing, but to be clear as a matter of the law, these issues should not be considered separately – a practice called segmentation – but rather as a meaningful whole. As Ms. Marsh, and others have pointed out amply in questioning safe exit and entrance to the property, it’s possible that each sightline considered as a piece is sufficient, but considered together, lack commonsense and safety.

We believe that this project makes that same error of segmentation not once, but many times over, aided too often by fibs and later revisions along the way to secure the aid and approval of various boards, commissions, and bodies, including (but not limited to) misleading filed papers to secure the subdivide, the promised recusal of counsel and ‘completed’ water testing to secure approval of wetlands, the use of shell corporations and the subdivision to avoid DEEP oversight and regulatory standards for a project of this size, the steady growth of the project over the course of months from a dozen or 16 units to 37 units and 950 ft of retaining walls reaching to eight feet in height. You might ask yourself why these retaining walls were never a serious topic of conversation at the Inland Wetlands hearing earlier this year. Perhaps, it’s because they weren’t in the plan approved at the time.

Now the applicants ask that the commission members and the public put this all aside and approve a project without solutions in place even for automobile traffic, water or septic; without designs which comply with the 2018 Fire Code. If this constitutes sufficient planning, truly we wonder what an incomplete or inadequate plan for the applicant would be. Really, are we to believe that nonexistent or endlessly variable plans better meet the rules of health and safety, than mere bad plans? We remain unconvinced.

For months, the best defense this plan had was the apparent – we were repeatedly promised – lack of a better location. We fully understand those who might embrace the good of affordable housing when presented with such a solitary opportunity. But it appears that even this is untrue, as already last night Kristin Anderson of the Women’s Institute made clear that this project was the first of others already contemplated or in part planned in Old Lyme. We strongly advise the community, the Commission, and the applicants to leave aside the current project, and embrace these other alternatives.

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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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Letter to the Editor: Democrat High Speed Rail Activist Wants Change in Old Lyme, Voting Republican

To the Editor:

Over the last two years I have worked on the high-speed rail issue with nearly every community, from Providence, RI, to Greenwich, CT.
I’d like to think that I’ve gained an honest measure of Old Lyme, and our town government.
I understand the reluctance of many of you to cross the aisle, but this liberal Democrat will be voting for a change on November 7. I’ll be voting for Judith Reed and Chris Kerr for Old Lyme. I strongly urge you to join me.
Sincerely,
Greg Stroud,

Old Lyme

Editor’s Note: The author is the founder of SECoast.org.
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