Don't ignore safety when evaluting affordable housing plan in Old Lyme

HOPE Partnership and the Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development are applying to build River Oak Commons on two adjacent land parcels in Old Lyme owned by Graybill Properties LLC. The seven townhouse-style buildings at 18-1 Neck Road and another four buildings and a community building on 18-2 Neck Road would be built in accordance with state laws promoting affordable housing.

In the following guest commentary, a critic of the chosen location argues that the developer is not addressing legitimate concerns about the project’s safety.

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. 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.

So what's the appeal of a development at Exit 70?

Let's start with the obvious; 16 Neck Road is slightly over 1,500 feet from the nearby Halls Road shopping district. Affording a car is almost as much a burden for families as affording housing. Two cars make the burden that much greater. Easing the burden of transportation makes sense. Walkability is a goal we support.

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.

People being people, children being children, there is no doubt that with this development will come significant numbers of people daily and at peak times crossing Route 156 near Exit 70 on foot.

The law promoting affordable housing states that zoning decisions may be based on "health, safety or other matters which the commission may legally consider." In practice, the courts have established a trio of key competing concerns: Affordability, Health, Safety.

Granted that under the law, 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 is that the developer and proponents of this project have chosen to dismiss worthy and competing issues, including 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.

And when we questioned the basic accuracy of statements by Hope Partnership regarding fire code approvals, not one proponent of the project bothered to raise a hand and rebut our statement. Instead, crickets.

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 but affordability? Isn't it remarkable that no one has said we care about fire safety, and we'll find the underlying cause of the fire code issue? 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?

From our perspective, that's what the moral high ground looks like. It's a realization that the right choices are complicated; that even projects with the best intentions must face worthy, competing, even contrary claims.

Gregory Stroud is the executive director of the Old Lyme-based SECoast, a nonprofit organization dedicated to issues of environmental protection, historic preservation, and open and honest government across the southern New England coastline.

 

 

 

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