CHESHIRE — The Planning and Zoning Commission held an at-times emotional public hearing on yet another affordable housing application this week.
Like other developers, Farmington-based Metro Realty filed an application under the state’s affordable housing statute, which puts a high burden of proof on local land-use authorities to show that the project has serious environmental or safety concerns in order to deny it.
While the PZC did have questions — particularly relating to traffic — about the seven-building, 72-unit, multi-family development proposed for the east side of Route 10 near Johnson Avenue, members of the community at the hearing came out united in vocal support of the project.
Acting PZC Chair Jeff Natale left the hearing open, to be continued at the Nov. 27 meeting, adding “we're going to keep an open mind.”
In the meantime, the PZC did request a traffic analysis from a third party, as well as a current accident report from the Cheshire Police Department.
PZC member Sean Strollo, who operates a towing business in the area, was particularly dubious of Metro’s traffic analysis, expressing concerns for pedestrians and truck drivers alike. After hearing the full presentation from Metro and the public testimony, Strollo commented that “it’s not about the product, it's where you put the product.”
Ryan McAvoy, an engineer with SLR Consulting, described the site as 13.8 acres, almost half of which is protected wetlands. It lies within the aquifer protection area. Part of the plan includes keeping trees along Route 10 for privacy.
The “product” under consideration is what is termed assisted housing. Metro President Geoff Sager took the PZC through a detailed presentation that showcased his company’s portfolio of previous developments in communities such as Avon, South Windsor, Farmington, and Berlin. Its other business focus is on medical office buildings.
Sager also described in some detail the tax credit program, which allows developers to take credits over a multi-year period for qualifying and approved projects. The financial incentive, which he noted dates back to the Reagan administration, is subject to local, state and federal oversight for its duration. Sager also pointed out that Section 42 of the federal tax code governing such projects is “the longest part of the revenue code.”
What assisted housing does for Cheshire, Sager argued, is to allow the town to count all of the project’s units as affordable housing, even while 20% of the units are proposed as market-rate. He said the remaining 80% must be priced to meet “affordability" standards.
The state has set a 10% affordable housing goal for municipalities the size of Cheshire.
Project attorney Timothy Hollister pointed out that an assisted housing designation also allows an application to be submitted for within a community's industrial zone. Metro is seeking to rezone the parcel in question through a text change into an “assisted housing district” as part of its application.
Project proponents are planning to add a “supportive housing” component as well. The developers are partnering with The Arc of Southington, a non-profit that advocates for people with developmental disabilities, seeking to give them more “inclusion" and “empowerment.”
Part of the Metro project would be dedicated to apartments for such individuals, with staffers on site to provide any needed assistance. Independence, however, is a major aspect of the initiative.
Several of those who spoke at the hearing illustrated Cheshire’s need for such living options by providing personal examples.
Liam Considine described Cheshire Public Schools’ Special Education services as "one of the best in the state.” He spoke of his special needs son’s positive experiences in the schools, and how his son described missing high school once he had graduated. What he misses is being integrated into a community, not being isolated. This kind of housing adds another tool.”
“The notion of supportive housing will get great support in this community. This community is open-hearted to these people. The more they're seen, the better for everyone," Considine continued. “Community does not just mean us, the parents and the family and allies of people with special needs: it’s making sure that we're all seen together.”
The PZC did have pointed questions for traffic engineer Mark Vertucci, of Manchester engineering firm Fuss & O’Neill. Natale, in particular, pointed out that since school buses could not enter a development, they would be loading and unloading children on the shoulder of Route 10 during busy portions of the day.
Vertucci defended his data, which he said came from on-site observation, local police reports, state analysis, and best practices recommendations.
Nonetheless, not every commissioner seemed convinced, based on their own knowledge of the area and crashes that had occurred nearby.
“What’s important is to get good information so we can make a decision,” stated Commissioner Matt Bowman.