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Foes of Bronson apartments liken plan to urban public housing

Photo by Genevieve Reilly

Neighbors of a Bronson Road site where a 95-unit apartment complex has been proposed turned out to oppose the application at Wednesday's meeting of the Town Plan and Zoning Commission, the second hearing the TPZ conducted this week on the proposal.

A proposal to build 95 apartments on lower Bronson Road, leased in compliance with state "affordable" criteria, was likened to public housing projects in Bridgeport when residents opposed to the complex got their chance to comment at Wednesday's Town Plan and Zoning Commission hearing.

The session was the second consecutive night the TPZ reviewed the controversial application by the Stamford developer, Garden Homes Management. The hearing has been continued to a third night next Tuesday, starting at 7:30 p.m. in McKinley School.

The three-story building, with 37 studio and 58 one-bedroom apartments, would be built on a 2.7-acre tract at 92-140 Bronson Road. The site is bounded by the Mill River, Interstate 95, the Metro-North Railroad tracks and the parking lot for a shopping center on the Post Road.

Bronson Road resident David Schine, a builder who lives 13 houses away from the proposed three-story development, said he is a proponent of 8-30g, the state statute that is intended to encourage the construction of more affordable housing. But, he added, "We don't want high-rise, high-density, high-profit developers taking advantage of poor people," where "they pack people like sardines like at P.T. Barnum." The Barnum apartment complex is a public housing project in Bridgeport's West End.

An alternative, Schine suggested, would be zoning regulations that would require builders of large homes to include an apartment in the house for low-income residents, like an in-law, nanny or someone who does their yard work. "We don't need to build New York City in Fairfield, he said.

"I remember the Pequonnock project (in Bridgeport)," Representative Town Meeting member Carol Way, R-6, said. "High rises where people are stuffed into small areas of land. It's not the kind of thing that's even being built in Bridgeport any longer."

Opponents also raised concerns about the number of children that potentially would live in the apartment complex and their safety walking to Mill Hill School.

Christina Gates said she lives on Bronson Road one-quarter mile from the proposed development. "People fly down that road and the traffic backs up to the on ramp," she said. "This growth is starting to take its toll." Gates said since the Fairfield Sportsplex opened on Mill Plain Road just off Exit 21, more drivers now use Exit 20 at Bronson Road to get to the Post Road or Southport center to avoid that traffic. "Think about what's going to happen to the quaintness of the village," she said.

"This 95-unit project is too big for the site and poses an obvious over-burden," David Sturges, a Warner Hill Road resident, said, adding that providing affordable housing should be done by the town through a proactive, rather than reactive, approach.

Kathryn Braun, a Representative Town Meeting member from District 8, who represented some of the neighbors during the inland wetlands hearing on the application, urged the TPZ to order Garden Homes to conduct additional testing of soil at the site.

Braun and others pointed out that a portion of the property is actually under water in the Mill River, and part of a Superfund site from contamination caused by pollutants generated by the former Exide Battery site and Superior Plating.

Braun also noted the property was once a farm and apple orchard, where pesticides or fertilizers were likely used. "It would be imprudent to approve this without getting more information," she said. Should the applicant refuse to provide the testing, she said, the TPZ would have grounds to deny the project.

Joel Green, the lawyer who represents the recently formed Lower Bronson Neighborhood Alliance, told the commission that what the developer refers to as the driveway to the proposed apartment building is actually a town road, which the developer has no right to alter. He submitted several deeds to support his position.

Green also contended that 8-30g statute requires Garden Homes to submit an affordability plan that includes draft zoning revisions for that specific property. No such zoning revisions were submitted, although he admitted that there is case law that indicates the developer does not need to do so. Read Full Article 

"It's not about affordable housing and I didn't hear anyone suggest it's the affordable issue," Green said. "The applicant is using 8-30g to create a development that is too large," with too few parking spaces that will generate excess traffic, he said.

It is not, Green said, a case of "NIMBY," or "not in my backyard," but a case of "NIMBI -- now I must be involved."

"There are obviously so many issues, a myriad of issues," said Patty Sullivan, one of the leaders of the new neighborhood group. "There are very, very serious safety concerns over the road issue, and it's the road issue that galvanized the neighborhood."

Developer's case outlined

A night earlier, the team for Garden Homes Management presented its case for the apartments, but faced questions from the TPZ about the width of the driveway, the lack of sidewalks, whether there would be enough parking for all the tenants, and whether public access to the Mill River needs to be provided.

"We have, as a community, given sincere lip service to affordable housing," said John Fallon, the lawyer representing the developer, "but we haven't addressed it as we sit here in 2014.

Garden Homes is currently finishing construction of a 54-unit affordable apartment complex on Fairchild Avenue, and the TPZ has yet to vote on an application for another affordable apartment complex nearby on Berwick and Fairchild avenues.

Of the 22 municipalities in the state that received block grants from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Fallon said, Fairfield ranks last in supplying housing that meets state affordable criteria, with 2.6 percent of the local housing stock in compliance with those guidelines.

One of the first areas of contention arose in regard to the proposed width of the driveway leading from the complex to Bronson Road. Town Engineer Laura Pulie has recommended it be 24 feet wide to allow for emergency vehicle access should cars be parked in the driveway.

The application calls for a 20-foot width. "Is there an issue with 24 feet?" asked TPZ Chairman Matthew Wagner. "Do you not have sufficient room to accommodate those recommendations?"

Fallon said because of a state DOT right-of-way, there is not enough property to provide a 24-foot wide driveway, but said during a code review, the fire marshal had no problem with the 20-foot width.

"We think the 20-foot access roadway, based upon all the data, is adequate," Fallon said.

He also said that same DOT property also prevents the developer from building sidewalks because they would have to end about 15 feet from Bronson Road.

Kermit Hua, the applicant's traffic engineer, also said the narrower driveway would act as a traffic calmer, keeping vehicle speed down, and added that the impact of traffic from residents of the apartments would be negligible.

Genevieve Reilly

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