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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Housing zone still moving — slowly

As published in the Record Journal on Wednesday March 6, 2013

By Andrew Ragali
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2224

WALLINGFORD – A decision will be made on the proposed downtown Incentive Housing Zone within the next two to three months, according to Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman James Seichter.

During a workshop held by the commission Monday night, Town Councilor John Le-Tourneau asked Seichter when a decision would be made, adding, “I’d love to see this in my lifetime.”

“I appreciate your frustration on this,” said Seichter, who made it clear to Le-Tourneau that he’d rather not set a timetable. “Clearly we need to reach a decision on this issue in a relatively short period of time.”

An Incentive Housing Zone in Wallingford would create specialized zoning regulations for developments on Hall Avenue and Quinnipiac, North Cherry, Meadow, Center and North Colony streets. The regulations allow the town to receive state funding while controlling the design of new developments. By adopting the zone, municipalities can receive up to $20,000 for pre-development studies and up to another $50,000 if at least 250 housing units are built in the zone.

The Incentive Housing Zone falls under an Office of Policy and Management program called Home Connecticut. The program was approved in 2007 by the state legislature and would require 20 percent affordable housing. The goal of the program is to provide affordable housing for residents who otherwise wouldn’t be able to remain in Wallingford.

Town Planner Kacie Costello said that for the Incentive Housing Zone to move forward in Wallingford, the Planning and Zoning Commission must establish regulations for the zone. The commission will hold workshops to “get proposed regulations to the point they want them to be.”

If regulations are approved by the commission, the Town Council must then endorse them, Costello said. Normally, the council would not be involved with zoning regulations, but since the program entails acceptance of money from the state, she said, the council must take action.

After receiving approval from the Town Council, the amended regulations are sent to OPM, Costello said. If OPM agrees with the regulations, the agency would give the town “preliminary approval.”

Regulations are then sent back to the Planning and Zoning Commission. Costello said a public hearing must be held by the commission. Then the commission must approve the regulations one last time before sending a final draft back to OPM, at which point “they provide us with final approval,” Costello said.

“The problem is, there seems to be no urgency on the part of the Planning and Zoning Commission,” said Le-Tourneau, who accused the commission of “dragging their feet” and slowing down the process.

“We’re trying to cure problems that don’t exist,” he said, adding that recent workshops about the Incentive Housing Zone have rehashed issues that had already been settled.

Costello said turnover on the Town Council and Planning and Zoning Commission since 2010 has resulted in some delay during meetings, as new people become acquainted with the situation. The Incentive Housing Zone was first proposed in 2008. On the state side, Costello said, a lack of funding caused delays.

“I don’t think they’re dragging their feet at all,” Town Councilor Craig Fishbein said of the Planning and Zoning Commission. “The towns that rush into things haphazardly get into trouble.”

Fishbein is comfortable with the progress so far because “we want to do it right the first time,” he said. Town Council Chairman Robert Parisi agreed.

“I don’t have a problem with his (Seichter’s) timeline,” Parisi said, “as long as there is free and open discussion.”

Parisi said that, with age, he has learned to become more patient. He believes the Incentive Housing Zone will eventually become a reality, it’s just that in Wallingford, things “are always a little on the slow side,” he said. “I’m not in a rush.”

Instead of two to three months, Town Councilor John Sullivan would like to see a decision made within 30 days.

“Let’s get moving here,” he said.

Sullivan complimented the Planning and Zoning Commission for their “tremendous” work so far, but he sided with LeTourneau in that “we are beating this thing to death.”

Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. pointed out that two to three months isn’t really that long.

“You’re not going to see too many meetings in that amount of time,” he said. “I think everyone needs the time to deal with this in a responsible way.”

Dickinson is supportive of the Incentive Housing Zone, which he hopes will make downtown a “friendlier, more comfortable streetscape kind of scene.”

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