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Waterford survey intends to determine public opinion toward affordable housing

Waterford — The town’s Planning & Zoning Commission is seeking input from residents on topics related to housing diversity and affordable housing.

The housing survey, at bit.ly/wtfdhousingsurvey, began this week, and people can respond through April 16. The joint effort by the town’s Planning Department and Planning & Zoning Commission is meant to gauge what people are looking for in housing types and ranges of cost.

“Based in part on the results of this survey, the Commission will evaluate housing options available today and begin planning for the kinds of housing our community may need in the future. Ultimately, the town will generate a plan that addresses housing choices for residents of all ages and income levels,” the survey reads. “We want to make sure that our town has the right amount and types of housing so people of all ages, backgrounds and incomes can live here.”

Connecticut requires municipalities to prepare a document informing policies and decisions on housing that towns encourage and what can be done to address the need for affordable housing. Planning Director Abby Piersall said she anticipates presenting the results of the survey to the commission in May. The results also will be made publicly available.

Piersall said the department has been working with a consultant on the state-mandated affordable housing plan document, and this survey is meant to be the first public outreach component of that project.

“We want to take the conversation about housing beyond affordability and get a better sense of what it is people are looking for in housing types and what the real range of cost is for people to feel like they have financial security living in town,” she said. “What are some of the forms and functions people would be supportive of if we were to make policy changes? How can we do that in a way that respects our existing neighborhood and enables folks to either age in place, grow up here and stay and raise their families, or move in for the first time and be part of a community that they currently may be priced out of.”

Questions on the survey try to determine exactly how people think Waterford should make housing more accessible. Do people want more accessory apartments or dwelling units of a smaller size on single-family properties? Are people interested in duplexes specifically? At what point do people become concerned about the number of stories in a multifamily housing building?

“We’d like to get to a middle ground where we can integrate affordable housing choices into the fabric of our residential areas without sacrificing the characters of those areas in the minds of folks who already have property there,” Piersall said. “The commission is going to be looking at areas where we may need to encourage a higher density and an apartment complex kind of development. That’s one aspect of this. But to really be successful, we’re going to have to look a lot of different ways to accomplish making it easier for folks to join the community or remain here.”

“If we make policy, what is the direction that’s likely to be supported, and what’s the direction to fill the need people have? We want those two to align,” she added.

Questions on the survey include the yes-or-no inquiry, “Do you think Waterford should encourage more housing people can afford?” It also asks, “What kinds of housing types should Waterford encourage/discourage?” with the options of single-family homes, 2-4 family homes, 1-2 story condos, 3-4 story condos, 1-2 story apartment buildings, 3-4 story apartment buildings, housing for people over 55 years old, veteran housing, workforce housing, housing for families, assisted living or other.

The survey notes that under state law, “housing developments can be built without meeting local zoning requirements if at least 30% of the units in the development are affordable and less than 10% of the housing in town is officially documented affordable” and asks the yes-or-no question, “Should Waterford seek opportunities to increase the amount of available affordable housing to avoid an override of local zoning requirements?” Only 4.81% of Waterford’s housing is documented as affordable.

According to DesegregateCT’s “Zoning Atlas,” an interactive map that shows zoning laws in all 2,616 zoning districts in the state compiled from more than 30,000 pages of zoning code and GIS information from 2,403 districts, among other sources, southeastern Connecticut is not necessarily an affordable housing hotbed.

Only about 0.9% of Old Lyme is zoned for two-family housing, and 0.8% for three- or four-plus family housing, for example. Any multifamily housing requires a hearing.

East Lyme is similar: About 3% of zoned area in town allows for three-plus-family housing after a public hearing, and slightly more than 2% for three-plus-family housing by right — meaning housing approved by municipal staff without a public hearing. Just 1% of area in Stonington is zoned for housing for three or more families by right, and 0.6% for three or more families after a public hearing.

By contrast, New London has more land zoned for multifamily housing, with about 17% of zoned area allowing housing for three or more families after a public hearing. A total of approximately 31% of zoned area allows housing for four or more families by right.

In Waterford, 23.6% of zoned area allows housing for three or more families following a public hearing, and 2.1% of zoned area allows housing for three or more families by right.

“Once you require any kind of housing or development to go through a public hearing process, it becomes a much more discretionary approval,” said Sara Bronin, a land use professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law and founder of DesegregateCT, an advocacy coalition comprising nonprofit groups. “Once you start allowing too much discretion, it ends up resulting in fewer project approvals and more onerous or expensive processes that hinder the production of housing.”

The push in 2019 against a multifamily housing development at the Cohanzie School in Waterford serves as an example. So what happens if Waterford respondents end up overwhelmingly opposed to affordable housing options? Piersall said that would be acceptable, as the survey creates an opportunity to specify why people may be anxious about affordable housing.

“There are absolutely issues of race and class embedded in these conversations that we need to acknowledge and say, ‘OK, how do our policies contribute or harm?'" Piersall said. "Many folks are not so much opposed to affordable housing as they’re concerned about an apartment complex being built in the vacant property next door or that someone could tear down two houses next to each other in their neighborhood and put up something that feels overwhelming in size, scale and density. When you take out some of those fear factors and say, ‘No, what Waterford wants is to have a lot of different tools, and make sure something fits with the character of the neighborhood,' it defuses some of the unknowns about what might happen and makes it an easier conversation.”

By contrast, Piersall said, preliminary data show a “welcoming group” with an interest in pursuing affordable housing as an issue. She said there will be an insert in utility bills promoting the survey, and the town also is working with the Board of Education to get the word out, with the goal of reaching a large cross-section of respondents.

s.spinella@theday.com

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