Despite opposition, Waterford pushes toward redevelopment of Cohanzie School

The vacant and dilapidated Cohanzie Elementary School, seen Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, closed in 2008 and has been vacant ever since. If approved by town officials over the next year, Georgia-based HF3 Group LLC will renovate the school and build new structures at the 10.6-acre site to provide mixed-income units, more than half reserved for seniors and veterans. (Benjamin Kail/The Day)
The vacant and dilapidated Cohanzie Elementary School, seen Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, closed in 2008 and has been vacant ever since. If approved by town officials over the next year, Georgia-based HF3 Group LLC will renovate the school and build new structures at the 10.6-acre site to provide mixed-income units, more than half reserved for seniors and veterans. (Benjamin Kail/The Day)

Waterford — Almost two years after stalled efforts to rezone and sell the former Cohanzie Elementary School site to a developer planning multifamily housing, town officials this week paved the way to rejuvenate the development despite residents' objections.

Harold Foley, owner of Georgia-based HF3 Group LLC, wants to build a 44-unit mixed-income development including new buildings while retaining and rehabilitating the former school at 48 Dayton Road. The town and state have spent upward of $900,000 remediating the vacant 10.6-acre site for redevelopment to grow the tax base.

Foley and town officials say the backlash against a 2016 rental housing plan prompted several adjustments, including sharp reductions in the number of proposed units.

"We're going in with less than a third of the density ... of what was originally contemplated," Foley said in an interview Wednesday, citing plans by previous developers. "We've tried to accommodate people. We want to do a small development that will be contained and seamlessly blend into the existing area. We would love to work with the community and we welcome input from the residents."

After a marathon meeting featuring debates over affordable housing and an hourlong executive session on the proposal, town officials this week authorized First Selectman Dan Steward to sign an option agreement for the site's potential sale to HF3 for at least $660,000. The option agreement is a contract that prevents the town from selling the site to anyone else until at least next spring.

By May 1, 2019, HF3 must acquire zoning, traffic, environmental, design and other approvals before finalizing the purchase next summer. If the town approves more units, the purchase price will rise by $15,000 per unit, to a maximum of 56 units at $840,000, according to the option agreement.

Foley said the project could cost between $13 million and $15 million, "a substantial investment in that area" using Connecticut contractors and subcontractors.

He plans to use a mix of conventional financing and funds from the state Department of Housing, the Connecticut Housing Authority and possibly credits from the State Historic Preservation Office and National Parks Service.

He said after previous efforts to rezone the site fell through, the demand seen at Waterford's Victoria Gardens affordable-housing development for seniors inspired him to try again.

If approved, the renovated school building will have about a half-dozen units, while the remainder of units will be in new buildings. Other portions of the school, which many hoped to preserve for its historical value, will be used as office space, a community gathering room or a computer room, Foley said.

'I want zero number of units'

The homeowners who packed Town Hall at this week's Representative Town Meeting wanted nothing to do with any proposals bringing an influx of renters to the neighborhood.

Some expressed concerns about traffic and others worried about potential strains on police and fire services. But most lamented that the former school site could become multifamily housing, a prospect they argued would sink property values and wreak havoc on their quality of life.

The residents scoffed at the RTM when it voted 16 to 0, with one abstention, in favor of letting the deal advance.

"I want zero number of units," said Tamara Tabor, who lives nearby and urged officials to keep the site zoned for a school, religious institution or YMCA. "Units ... with people living in rental apartments, are not what we want in our neighborhood, regardless of what the traffic is, what the strain is on EMS, fire, crosswalks, the entrance, the strain on the school system ... it's not relevant. We don't want rental properties ... in our little single-family neighborhood. It's not fair. We didn't buy homes in a neighborhood like that. We don't want it."

Town officials, who frequently have cited Waterford's lack of affordable housing, labored to explain that the proposal included no subsidized low-income housing.

Town Attorney Robert Avena said of the 44 units proposed, 22 would be for seniors; five for veterans; eight that would qualify as "affordable housing" with income capped at $58,000; and nine with no income caps at all, offered at market rates between $1,200 and $1,400. Provisions on background and credit checks and how to manage vacancies could be worked into permits enforced by the town.

Guidelines for developers seeking state Department of Housing grants and financing for residential or mixed-use developments note "affordable housing" must be affordable to persons with incomes no higher than 80 percent of the area median income.

"That's a fairly good income," Avena said of the $58,000. "Low income is a different market than what we're talking about."

Residents did not buy it. One hinted the development could attract drug dealers and another used an expletive to describe Avena's explanation of the difference between low income and affordable housing.

Foley said he doesn't run from such challenges and that, through the Planning and Zoning Commission process, "we have an opportunity to educate residents and they begin to understand the value of developments such as this."

Foley said the apartments fit "a real need in a place like Waterford." He noted tenants could range from Millstone Power Station workers to fishermen and employees and managers of coffee shops and retail stores at places like nearby Crystal Mall or Waterford Commons.

He added that he's examining potential property managers who would be on-site 24/7.

Steward said other rental properties in Waterford did not add heavy traffic or a significant number of students to the school district. The 140-unit Rope Ferry Commons houses a total of 12 students spread across the school system; 10 students live at the 90-unit Stoneheights complex.

He added that in recent years, only one or two rental developers have expressed interest in the property; previous groups that considered building a religious institution chose to look elsewhere.

'We should move away from classism'

RTM member Joshua Steele Kelly said he abstained from voting because he had "two sides pulling" him: one toward preserving "as much public land as possible, preferably in its natural state," and the other toward filling the town's need for affordable housing while expanding the tax base.

Kelly said the neighborhood residents, whom he represents, "should have their voice a little more represented than the vote may have reflected. The least I could do was give an abstention, so people could feel they could reach out to me so I could stay involved."

Town officials note residents will have many more chances to weigh in on the project at various hearings and meetings over the next year.

While Kelly remains unsure whether the potential benefits outweigh any downsides with this development, he distanced himself from comments disparaging affordable housing or those who live in it. He noted the median household income in Waterford is more than $70,000, and "a lot of people in Waterford would qualify" for affordable housing units.

"We should work to move away from any sort of classism," he said. "We approve construction of new houses with other boards and commissions working to approve housing for upper-income families ... and there's never this outcry. It does make me wonder if there isn't a larger conversation we need to have in Waterford about who we are and how accepting we really should be." 

b.kail@theday.com

The former Cohanzie Elementary School is seen Friday, Aug. 10, 2018. Town officials this week paved the way to rejuvenate a proposal to build between 44 and 56 multifamily housing units at the site of the former school, which closed in 2008. Neighborhood residents have objected to housing proposals at the site over the last two years. (Benjamin Kail/The Day)
The former Cohanzie Elementary School is seen Friday, Aug. 10, 2018. Town officials this week paved the way to rejuvenate a proposal to build between 44 and 56 multifamily housing units at the site of the former school, which closed in 2008. Neighborhood residents have objected to housing proposals at the site over the last two years. (Benjamin Kail/The Day)

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