North Stonington - A presentation of housing and economic development plans Thursday evening turned into a wide-ranging discussion of some of the town's most pressing issues as it faces an aging population, rising property taxes, and a dearth of both affordable housing and economic opportunity.
The meeting served as another in a series of steps the town has taken to glean community feedback as they work on a long-range Plan of Conservation and Development, the name of which encompasses the town's chief challenge: How to attract businesses while maintaining the town's definitive rural and agricultural character.
Heidi Samokar, a consultant with Planimetrics, and Mark Waterhouse of Garnet Consulting Services Inc. presented the housing plan, adopted by the Affordable Housing Committee last month, and the economic development action plan, completed in December. The meeting drew about 40 members of the town's boards and commissions.
"You're not a city. You're not like Norwich and you're not like New London. You are you," Samokar said. "So what would work to help address the needs in your community?"
The plan that she and two other consultants had been working on with the Affordable Housing Committee for about a year highlighted several ideas and obstacles. She said the town should pursue community-driven projects, such as a cooperative home ownership program and mixed-use developments.
One issue, she said, is the lack of diversity in the town's housing options - 93 percent of the housing units are single-family - and the fact that the sale price of most homes is not affordable to those earning the state's median household income.
In terms of economic development, Waterhouse said the town's strengths include its proximity to Boston and New York, its Interstate 95 access and its desirable rural character.
But the list of weaknesses - including complex zoning regulations, a lack of places to shop and limited local cultural activities - seemed to outweigh these. The biggest impediment to growth, he said, is the lack of sewers.
"I'm not sure that that's a conscious strategy (to deter businesses) here in North Stonington," Waterhouse said, "but it's certainly working."
More broadly, he said, the town is plagued by its overall negative impression. The Board of Selectmen is perceived as "not providing adequate leadership," he said; the Economic Development Commission is perceived as "fractured" and "ineffective"; and members of the Planning and Zoning Commission are perceived as "control freaks."
"North Stonington is perceived as being a very difficult place to get anything done," he said.
Waterhouse said the industrial district at the west end of Route 2 - the section closest to Foxwoods Resort Casino - is an ideal corner to change the zoning laws and allow businesses to take advantage of high traffic. He also presented initiatives for the next three to five years, including hosting a year-round farmers market and crafts center, and capitalizing on the town's water supply.
Waterhouse stressed that the town will need to invest significantly in order to yield any sort of growth, and that residents cannot rely on already over-committed staff and volunteers. He suggested hiring a part-time economic development director.
"Economic development is not a freebie," he said.
He also described the town's two competing camps: one committed to protecting community character and one committed to attracting business investment.
"In my estimation, these are not mutually exclusive positions that can never find a middle ground," he said.
By far the most contentious topic of the night was the state's affordable housing statute, known as Sec. 8-30g, which mandates that municipal housing stock be at least 10 percent affordable, as defined by state standards. Just 0.78 percent of North Stonington's housing qualifies as affordable, leaving it vulnerable to the part of state law that says affordable housing developers need not adhere to a town's zoning regulations if the 10 percent threshold has not been met.
The statute has long been viewed by many residents as a burden. Several developers have come forward with plans for large apartment complexes at which the small bedroom community has balked.
Samokar suggested shoring up the town's affordable housing standing by maximizing the potential of existing housing units - for example, making accessory apartments affordable.
Senior Planning and Zoning Official Juliet Leeming said a community survey on the Plan of Conservation and Development will be mailed out Wednesday with a March 15 return deadline. The survey also will be available online.
The next big public meeting on the subject is planned for April 6 - a part educational and part formal visioning session with the consultants as moderators - in the North Stonington Elementary School multi-purpose room.
The goal is to have the plan finished by December.