Old Lyme officials discuss establishing affordable housing committee

Old Lyme — Town officials discussed creating an affordable housing exploratory committee at a Board of Selectmen meeting Monday.

The committee, if formed by the selectmen, could be tasked with researching how to best address the state's affordable housing law, among other responsibilities.

First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said deciding on whether a committee is necessary and establishing its responsibilities will be part of conversations between her, the selectmen and the public. Reemsnyder said plans for such a committee have been in the town's Plan of Conservation and Development for several years, but have not been pursued until now.

The idea for the committee, which was separately suggested to Reemsnyder by two residents, Michael Fogiliano and Karen Winters, comes after an affordable housing proposal submitted to the town earlier this year divided residents.

Known as the River Oak Commons Project, the proposal, put forward by HOPE Partnership and the Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development, called for a 37-unit affordable housing development to be built on land along the Interstate 95 North Exit 70 off-ramp and Neck Road (Route 156). The proposal has been approved by both the town’s zoning and wetlands commissions.

Because the town has less than 10 percent of its housing stock dedicated as affordable — actually 1.57 percent — it is subject to a state law that requires it to prove a proposed affordable housing plan would impact the town’s health and safety in order to reject the application. Simply not being in compliance with zoning regulations is not enough to reject such a plan.

Having proposed the idea of an exploratory committee to Reemsnyder, Fogiliano said at Monday’s meeting that the possibility of establishing one would be “an initial step to gather the information that could be beneficial for Old Lyme.”

He said the committee would be used to help officials navigate the complexities of the state's affordable housing law in the case other applications are brought forth. He said he believed future applications are likely.

“Basically, this would be to gain a better understanding what the development process is and the legislation that would impact the town,” Fogiliano said. “There are incentive programs and grants out there that we may be able to take advantage of. And (the committee) would make recommendations to the board on what to do next.”

“Other towns have set up their own committees,” Fogiliano continued. “Some have set up special procedures in their zoning to manage and incentivize, within balance, affordable housing. It seems like there is a pretty good body of experience out there that we can draw on.”

Reemsnyder specified before Monday’s meeting that such a committee would only function to research and make recommendations to town officials. It would not have the authority to sign off on plans or make executive decisions regarding applications and proposals.

Reemsnyder recommended that the selectmen further discuss the idea. She also said selectmen would need to work out an exact charge for the committee and its membership, among other details.

After presenting the idea to the board, Selectwoman Mary Jo Nosal said, “After watching the conversations (throughout the public forums), I would have to say that having an exploratory committee … makes perfect sense.”

“It would be worthwhile to approve five to seven people who could maybe focus on certain areas and bring it back to the committee and then share those findings with the Board of Selectmen, especially after seeing the (town’s) reaction last fall. There was a lot of emotion around it.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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