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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Some answers, but not enough - Incentive Housing Zone questions remain after visit of OPM official

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

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

WALLINGFORD – The Planning and Zoning Commission, having received answers to some of its questions, will continue working toward the possible creation of an Incentive Housing Zone, Town Planner Kacie Costello said Tuesday.

An Incentive Housing Zone would create specialized zoning regulations for developments on Hall Avenue and Quinnipiac, North Cherry, Meadow, Center and North Colony streets. The town would keep control of the design of the developments, but at least 20 percent of the housing units built must be affordable housing and fall under regulations set by the legislature to qualify for state money.

The goal of the workshop, held Monday night, was to gather as much information as possible about the zone, which would fall under an Office of Policy and Management program called Home Connecticut. The program was approved by the state in 2007. Dimple Desai, community development director for OPM, attended the meeting and answered questions from the commission and members of the public.

“I think that it was very helpful having someone from OPM there,” Costello said.

Many of the questions asked during the meeting were procedural, Costello said, because “we as a community are looking for as many concrete answers as we can in terms of what the interactions with OPM will entail.”

One of the issues brought up during the meeting was how the Incentive Housing Zone designation could be repealed, if the town should choose to do so.

“You have to get OPM’s approval to get it off the books,” Desai said, adding that he would have to consult legal counsel for a more specific answer.

PZC Chairman James Seichter asked Desai to get back to the town because “it’s been brought up in our prior workshop and it is a potential issue.”

Seichter asked if there would be any repercussions to repealing the zone, such as returning money given to the town as part of the incentive portion of the program.

Under statute, Desai said OPM “may require” the town to repay the state. “Again, it doesn’t say ‘shall,’ ” he said, adding that “OPM and the state work with municipalities” if they revoke the zone.

If the zone is approved, an overlay zone would be imposed, forcing developers to abide by requirements laid out in town regulations.

Desai said the overlay zone is a benefit to developers because of the affordable housing capability, and a benefit to the town because it will have control over the look of the new developments. Costello said control over design standards was the biggest issue for Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. at a January workshop. Dickinson did not attend Monday’s meeting.

Proposals for an Incentive Housing Zone have been around since early 2008, when then-Town Planner Linda Bush presented the idea of creating an overlay zone for a 23.3-acre swath of downtown Wallingford that would allow for mixed-use commercial and high-density residential properties.

During the workshop Monday night, Desai laid out the financial incentives of the program. He said that if at least 250 housing units are created, the town would receive $50,000 to use at its own discretion.

Commission member James Fitzsimmons asked Desai if the zoning district is “subject to variance,” a topic that Seichter called “an important issue and an important question.”

Costello said, typically, a variance can be obtained through the Zoning Board of Appeals when a commercial or residential developer requests a change in zoning regulations. She said a hardship must be proven to obtain a variance. An example would be if zoning regulations required windows on the first floor of a building to be larger than windows on the second floor. If a developer wants larger windows on the second floor, it must prove a hardship to the board. If a hardship is proven, zoning regulations can be changed.

“What the concern is, there could be the potential of a developer trying to bypass regulations via the variance process,” Costello said.

Town Councilor Craig Fishbein, who attended the workshop, said Tuesday that if the appeals board can consider variances, it “throws the Incentive Housing Zone out.”

“The issue of a variance is a major concern,” Fishbein said.

Costello said Tuesday that she will be consulting with the town’s Law Department to clarify if variances are allowed if developers opt into the overlay zone. Desai said OPM has not run into the issue yet because the program is so new. He said it’s really up to the municipality.

The impetus for the Incentive Housing Zone program, Desai said, is to provide more options for young college students or older couples who “cannot afford to live in a town they’ve lived in their whole life.”

Workshops will continue, Seichter said at the end of Monday’s meeting. The commission must look at other issues, such as parking, traffic, and design standards such as maximum building height, Costello said.

“From my perspective, I think it’s beneficial to continue to have discussions on this,” Seichter said.

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