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One of the issues brought up during the meeting was how the Incentive Housing Zone designation could be repealed, if the town should choose to do so.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

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.”