A ruling by State Superior Court Judge Kenneth Shluger could help move forward a 14-year effort to create a moderate-income housing community in Westport. Shluger said that the town must grant a conditional approval for a sewer line extension needed for the project.
Shluger ordered Westport to extend its existing municipal sewer line 1,600 feet, making it able to serve the proposed development on Hiawatha Lane in Westport’s Saugatuck neighborhood. The judge said the town’s Water Pollution Control Authority had abused its discretion by delaying the extension. Westport’s three-member governing Board of Selectmen serves as commissioner of the authority.
The town had said it has a policy which prevents it from issuing conditional approvals and could not consider extending the sewer pending upgrades to a failing sewer line and related pumping station that presently are inadequate to handle the additional sewage effluent the new housing would generate.
The extension is the needed first step in developer Summit Saugatuck LLC’s plan to construct rental housing units on the Hiawatha Lane Extension. Summit, a related entity of Summit Development of Southport, has maintained since early 2016, when it negotiated a joint venture agreement with the Westport Housing Authority to build 155 units, that the town was not only authorized but obligated to issue a sewer extension approval conditioned upon the completion of the sewer and pump station upgrades.
In the wake of the ruling, Summit Founder, CEO, President and Principal Felix Charney said he was increasing his plan from 155 to 187 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments, utilizing community and workforce housing statute 8-30g. That often-controversial statute was enacted in 1990 to provide affordable housing and can allow developers to override town zoning requirements.
“We believe in affordable housing,” Charney told the Business Journal. “We believe that this location is perfect, with the railroad on one side and the highway on the other. It’s within walking distance of the train station.
“8-30g was created to alleviate the pain and suffering of these people,” he added. “It’s a very necessary regulation.”
Saying that the town itself has built similar housing in a number of neighborhoods, Charney said he was “somewhat surprised that the town was not willing to extend” the sewer line. “For the better part of 10 years we were in discussions with the town to do this consensually.”
Ultimately, he said, “We were left with no alternative but to go to the court to affirm our rights.”
Opponents have said approval of the extension would destroy the character of old Saugatuck. Nevertheless, Charney said that support for the project from the Westport Housing Authority proved the need for additional affordable housing. Charney noted that he’d tangled with both former First Selectman Gordon Joseloff and current First Selectman Jim Marpe over the issue.
“For years we have offered compromises, all of which have been rebuffed by the town,” Charney said. “We have a great location near the train station, are in a neighborhood where there are other multifamily apartments and are using a classic New England-style architecture that fits beautifully within the community. The real question boils down to whether Westport wants to be an inclusive or an exclusive community?”
WHA Executive Director Carol Martin “and her association have been very much in favor of this and wanted to find something that would work for everybody,” Charney said. “This was a three-legged stool” — between Summit, the WHA and Westport — “and one of the legs broke.”
“We’re hoping that the for-profit development sector will pick up and help us to create more affordable housing units,” Martin affirmed. “This is very much in line with Westport’s transit-oriented design, and we’re pretty happy about creating more affordable housing units — if that’s actually what’s going to happen.”
Indeed, Summit’s proposal is still pending approval from Westport’s Conservation Commission, the fire department and the fire marshal. Asked when he expected to move forward with the project, Charney said: “I have no idea. I thought this process would have resolved itself years ago.”
He put the cost of construction at approximately $40 million.
Martin said that the WHA has spent some $50 million over the past eight years to create affordable housing units in the town, and that its wait list for such accommodations is now in excess of 1,000. “We never have to worry about having a vacant apartment,” she said, noting that the wait list has been closed for more than 12 months. “As soon as someone leaves an apartment, someone else moves in.”
“We average three to four phone calls a day” seeking such housing, Martin said. “Some of the stories we hear are pretty sad.”
Charney said that Westport has in the past expanded its marina to accommodate a lack of boat storage and expanded its parking lot at the train station to meet demand.
“We’re not talking about cars and boats, we’re talking about people,” he declared.
The developer went on to say that “despite this process being so confrontational, we want people to know there’s still a land-development company that believes in this type of housing.
“It’s always best if everyone can come together for the betterment of all,” he added. “We continue to welcome the opportunity to meet face to face (with Westport officials) rather than go to court. But unless they’re willing to discuss it with us, we will go back to the courts.”