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Zoning Opens Door to Affordability Concept

Zoning Opens Door to Affordability Concept

Some nine months after having received a challenge to its zoning regulations to allow for more housing opportunities, the Town Plan and Zoning Commission (TPZ) voted 5 to 1 in support of revisions to its regulations and to the Plan of Conservation and Development that would allow for accessory dwelling units throughout the town; as well as multi-family housing with some affordable units with certain limitations.  The application was presented by the Open Communities Alliance (OCA) and 2 Orchard Road LLC to permit multi-family and affordable housing in all residential districts and to allow such developments with a simple permit rather than a Zoning Commission review or public hearing.

In rendering its decision, the commissioners distinguished between two-family housing, which will be allowed in all residential districts, and multi-family housing of three or more units, which will be allowed only by special exception in areas that have both public water and sewer access.  Multi-family units, whether two or more, are to be housed in one building on each lot.

Watershed protection, and access to public water and sewer became the determining factors as to how much public scrutiny any particular two-family proposal will get.

Two-family developments in the watershed area — which encompasses the majority of Woodbridge’s Residential A zone — will require a special exception from the TPZ with a public hearing; developments that are not in the watershed area only require a site plan review by the commission; and developments that are connected to public water and sewer can be approved by zoning permit from the land-use offices.

The question of density — how many units per acre — created some unease among the zoners.  Chairman Robert Klee suggested to allow 15 units across the board as long as they have access to public water and sewer rather than differentiate between the Village and other residential areas.  As an example, for 15 units per acre he mentioned the senior development off Lucy Street.

Commissioner Paul Schatz did not agree.  “Fifteen is an awful lot in Residential A,” he responded.  “That’s an enormous change.  Imagine that on Tumblebrook Road, or on North Racebrook.”  But neither of those would have access to public water and sewer, and would therefore not be eligible.

In terms of density, both commissioners Andrew Skolnik and Jeff Kennedy would have preferred lesser density for residential areas, but in the end voted for the 15 units per acre.  Commissioner Yonatan Zamir pointed out that it’s only in two places that the regulations are allowing more than 2 units, “it doesn’t bother me as much as it’s bothering [others],” he said.

Summing up the proposed changes, at the commission’s May 24 special meeting, Chairman Klee was positive about the work they had accomplished.  “This is a strong step in the right direction,” he said.

Commissioner Schatz did not join the majority in this vote, registering his overall objection.  “Six people are making decisions for the town without public hearing and public comment,” he said.  “I think its fundamentally wrong making major changes [without public input].”

Chairman Klee said during seven months of public hearing, the public had extensive opportunity for comment, which many took advantage of.  The message he got from many people was that the town does need to do more, but in a way, that’s coming from within – “that’s what I see us doing,” Klee said.  “It builds on what was put forward.”

Commissioner Lawrence Greenberg supported Klee’s approach.  The application brought deficiencies in the town’s zoning laws to light, he said, which requires the commission to act and address housing opportunities.  He called this a “balanced approach,” and felt that the public had ample opportunity to express their views during the course of the public hearing.

Affordability:  The revised Plan of Conservation and Development also introduces “affordability” as a concept related to housing choice.  ‘“Affordable’ refers to a home or housing unit for which families pay no more than 30 percent of their annual income, and where that income is less than or equal to a prescribed percentage of median income.”

“At a minimum, 20% of the units in a multi-family Opportunity Housing development shall be deed restricted for at least 40 years, and at least half of those units shall be…for sale or rental to a household earning 60% of the median income or less.  Any other affordable units shall be deed-restricted for sale or rental to a household earning 80% of median income or less.”

The steps taken were in response to the OCA application, and does not preclude the commission to add provisions as needed going forward, according to Board Attorney Marianne Dubuque.  She repeatedly cautioned commissioners during their deliberation not to “stray” from the record set during the hearing.  For example, the application didn’t include reference to mixed-use districts, which the commission will update in the future.

The commission therefore set an effective date of September 7, which will allow it to enact updates and incorporate them into the already approved revisions.

The Open Communities Alliance reaction was not favorable.  On Facebook, Attorney Erin Boggs posted, “The Commission’s decision to revise their zoning regulations falls far short of real change and continues the irrational, discriminatory single-family dominance that has been the Town’s defining characteristic for decades.”

In a statement on its website, she added, in boldface, “What a disappointment.  What a missed opportunity!”

“The Commission rejected all multifamily housing except in 1.6% of the town.  Even in that “tiny sliver of town,” as one Commissioner described it, multifamily property owners will be subject to more onerous restrictions than those that apply to single-family homes.  “The Commission adopted impervious coverage ratios, for example, that apply only to multifamily housing and not to single-family homes.  Multifamily developments will be subjected to discretionary review by the Commission and a public hearing.”

In her statement, Boggs further points out how the new regulation continues to discriminate between single-family and multifamily housing, as it requires for the latter a public hearing with public comments and consideration of the “harmony and appropriateness of the use;” and gives the commission complete discretion as to how to interpret that provision.  “These procedures are well known to discourage housing production by creating cost and uncertainty.”

As for next steps, “we are considering our options,” she wrote.  “But know this:  We are not giving up.”

By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent

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