Two New Views for Housing

New Milford zoners are being asked to consider amending regulations to allow for the possibility of mixed-use construction on some properties along the banks of the Housatonic River, in a 100-year flood plain, and of creating moderately priced homes for eligible people who work in town. However, opponents of these proposals maintain that, although they may have their merits, they do not fall within the guidelines of the town’s current plan of conservation and development.

Harold Fischel is seeking the establishment of a Housatonic Riverfront Zone to “to encourage redevelopment and adaptive reuse” of properties, and Victor Nelson is asking for the creation of a Workforce Housing Zone, which would enable private developers to build single-family residences primarily for families of people who hold certain essential jobs in town, such as police and emergency personnel, hospital employees, teachers, and the like.

The Planning Commission, in a 4-0-1 vote, has recommended against the Riverfront Zone proposal, and Mayor Patricia Murphy also does not support the change in regulations. Planning also recommended, in a 3-2-0 vote, not to create a Workforce Zone. In the latter instance, as it was pointed out by Zoning Enforcement Officer Laura Regan, the planners had looked upon the concept somewhat favorably but had questions and “legality” concerns.

Regarding the Fischel proposal, it is essential to the project that properties in this zone have municipal sewer and water and that the nonresidential use would be anything permitted in a B-1 restricted business zone.  Paul Szymanski, representing the applicant, pointed out that the proposal has been scaled back from its original residential plan to a mixed-use project (with a maximum 60-40 residential/business ratio).
He said that his client would be “agreeable to starting small and seeing how it works and what it would mean-taking it one property at a time.”

Mr. Szymanski also said that the applicant is seeking a special permit process so that the Zoning Commission would have “the utmost discretion” in considering future applications for the proposed zone.  “Investors from in town and out of town who believe in New Milford are looking for creative ways to develop in New Milford,” he said. “They want to put forth projects not allowed now” in the regulations,” the engineer said, adding, however, that “they don’t want to encourage sprawl … they want to see properties get redeveloped.”

Patricia Greenspan, a town conservationist, responded to the proposal, saying, “Red flags go up whenever the river is mentioned. It is our greatest natural asset. … The river needs more protection, not less.”  Echoing her concerns, Elaine LaBella, the land conservation director of the Housatonic Valley Association, said, “The riverfront is a wonderful asset for the town.” She agreed that “there are opportunities for mixed use in the downtown area” but added that they needed to be “part of a plan” for the town, “not a hodgepodge.” A large concern is that the proposal is “quite sweeping” and would be able to do “just about anything.”

Thomas McGowan, a professional planner and the conservation and planning director of the Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust, urged the zoners to “step back and look at the process,” adding that “the timing is wrong” since the town is working on a new plan of conservation and development and mixed-use has been part of that discussion.

Resident Jane Gregory said the Fischel proposal is “offering an economic stimulus package” to the town and that, regarding river protection concerns, “I don’t think there’s a river in the world that doesn’t have flood concerns.” She added, “Think a little bit more broadly. Don’t let small things keep you from creating a vision-New Milford could use a vision. Don’t lose sight of what is offered.”

Mr. Nelson’s proposal also met with concerns about timing-regarding whether there is a need for more housing given the economic climate as well as the fact that the workforce zone would not fall within the scope of the current town plan.  Attorney Jeffrey Sienkiewicz explained that his client is looking to assist people of moderate income who provide essential services in town by giving them new housing options.

Under the proposal, single-family houses with a moderate bit of property would be developed in floating zones that would be available first to this eligible population and afterward to residents and then to nonresidents who work in town. Also, if such housing is to be offered for sale within the first four years, the town would have the right of first refusal. Also, the sale price could not exceed a 10 percent increase on the original price, whether any significant improvements were made or not. After four years, however, the owner could determine the asking price. .

Ms. Regan noted that the Planning Commission members were “confused” about how this procedure would work, and Mr. Sienkiewicz said that he and his client have been working through the details. The requirements, he said, could be managed in a number of ways, however the town desired.
Mr. Nelson told the zoners, “People will say there’s housing in this price range now. Yes, but not new housing.” He said that he wants to provide housing for “someone who is not handy” and would have “a lot of trouble” in trying to renovate a fixer-upper. It could also be for older people who want to sell their home and yet stay in New Milford as this new housing “would be free of major expenses” associated with upgrades,” Mr. Nelson said, adding that the appropriate spot(s), “would be your decision.”
By Alice Tessier – Housatonic Times

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