The current application by Open Communities Trust requesting the elimination of much of our single-family-housing zoning has brought into focus some things of which Woodbridge voters should take note.
First, the Town Plan and Zoning Commission (TPZ) has provided ample time for public comment, and those comments have been overwhelmingly opposed to the application. A review of the written comments shows this is not a partisan issue. In fact, the commenters come from a representative mix of Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and unaffiliated voters. More Democrats have spoken up to oppose the plan than any other group. It is encouraging to see that when presented with the facts, people with different political views can agree on an important issue. Let’s hope our elected Town leaders are paying attention to what their constituents are saying.
Second, a key element of the applicant’s position is the one-size-fits-all state law that puts affordable housing quotas on all 169 towns and cities in the state. The idea that this law is cast in stone and we must simply obey it is flawed. If a nation can repeal a Constitutional Amendment, then a state can certainly repeal or modify a law so that it no longer conflicts with on-the-ground reality and other state policies. This is where we Woodbridge constituents can and should be communicating with our elected officials: Sen. Jorge Cabrera (SD-17), Sen. James Maroney (SD-14) and Rep. Mary Welander (LD-114). Links to these representatives can be found on our website, woodbridgegop.com. We must urge our legislators to fix state law because it fails to take into account real and serious conditions such as the drinking water and sewer/septic issues here. If every concerned Woodbridge resident communicated with these representatives, one would expect some positive action.
Now, about how our local government is handling the situation. At the February 17th Board of Selectmen Special meeting, the Board voted to establish a new ‘Woodbridge Housing Opportunity Study Committee’ “[t]o guide the Town of Woodbridge (a) in formulating a long-term plan for the Town to comply with Federal and State housing laws, including Fair Housing laws and (b) in promoting a mix of housing opportunities, including the development of an Affordable Housing Plan, as required by State law.” This action raises several questions. First, how does this special committee fit in with the Town Plan and Zoning Commission and its responsibilities under the law? Second, the committee is supposed to be assisted by “staff” including both town employees and “a qualified consultant with expertise in a broad range of housing opportunities.” What is town leadership’s definition of a “qualified consultant?” How is the consultant going to be selected and what qualifications is the town looking for? Several Woodbridge residents, in an honest effort to help the situation, have recommended the non-profit – and potentially free – Local Initiatives Support Corporation. If that group has the expertise, there is no reason to spend money needlessly, especially if we are bracing for a costly lawsuit if the applicant does not get its way. Third, the consultant’s expertise is focused on “housing opportunities.” What expertise will the committee draw on to understand the significant environmental issues regarding wells, septic systems, and our town’s role as a regional public water supply watershed? And what about community input? The charge says the committee “is being asked to…engage the community in the discussion of key issues.” Shouldn’t community engagement be required, and shouldn’t the Selectmen set minimum requirements to assure the committee keeps residents informed about all the information that the committee receives, and provides ample opportunity to residents to voice their questions and ideas?
That said, recognition of the need for a “qualified consultant” to help the town address this important issue is reassuring. This approach sounds nearly identical to the recommendations that Republican Selectmen made in 2013 with respect to options for the Country Club of Woodbridge. Those recommendations were summarily ignored – and the fate of the CCW is still adrift. It’s good to see town leadership may not be making the same mistake twice.
Last but not least, it is vitally important that the new committee’s membership reflects the town as a whole. Specifically, the committee membership should be representative of the people in town with respect to the zoning issue. Measuring the For/Against written submissions to the TPZ on the application that started all this furor, it’s about a 10:1 ratio against. They would be the “toughest customers” and if they were accepting of a proposed plan, that would be a good signal that the majority’s interests have been protected as much as possible. And it’s the kind of balance we need back in our local government.
By Chuck Pyne