An investigation into Darien that has gone on for over two years without much detail provided by the civil rights division of the United States Department of Justice has officially closed, with no further action required.
In a letter dated Thursday, Aug. 23 from Steven Rosenbaum, chief of the housing and civil enforcement area of the civil rights division to town counsel Wayne Fox, Rosenbaum said the department informed Darien of the investigation on May 4, 2010. Rosenbaum said the investigation involved whether the town’s zoning and land use practices violated the Fair Housing Act.
The letter continued to say the case is closed.
“Our office has now completed the investigation, and has deteremined that no further action is warranted at this time. Therefore, the Department of Justice has closed this investigation,” Rosenbaum said.
In May 2010, the Department of Justice informed the town it was investigating its inclusionary zoning policy, in particular the “priority populations” clause, which would make new affordable units first offered to those connected to the town. In the fall of 2010, P & Z voted to remove the “priority populations” clause.
The inclusionary zoning policy requires those applicants building market-rate housing to contribute to the town’s affordable housing stock by either adding affordable units to the project or contributing funds toward building it elsewhere.
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The town approved its first project that will make use of inclusionary zoning with a mixed used project on the Post Road proposed by local developers David Genovese and Penny Glassmeyer. The town opted to ask Genovese and Glassmeyer to make a payment after the developers asked the town what would work best.
Throughout the investigation, the Department of Justice told The Darien Times its investigation remained ongoing, and thus could not comment on the investigation’s scope. An anonymous Twitter account, DOJvDarien, inspired by the investigation followed updates on the case as well as other legal and town issues related to affordable housing.
Chris Stefanoni, who has filed several lawsuits over denied or modified affordable housing applications by the town, said it was a “good thing the DOJ surveillance of Darien is over.”
Stefanoni was one of several Darienites that was contacted by the department over the two-year period.
“The town really had no choice but to delete its unfortunate and exclusionary zoning language,” he said.
“However, now residents have to deal with the financial consequences of what else happened so hastily to appease the federal government,” he said.
“By approving the 35 substandard units at Garden Homes and then doubling the number of families at Allen-O’Neill to well over a hundred, the already over-crowded schools in Darien will face an influx of many more students that need to be subsidized,” Stefanoni told The Darien Times this week.
“Taxes will go up again, and many residents will end up sad and angry. That is why I have argued for years that senior housing, which is sorely needed and not a tax drain, has always been a better solution for Darien,” he said.
Town counsel Wayne Fox told The Darien Times this week that the town is pleased the determination to close the investigation was made by the Department of Justice.
“We have always been of the opinion that it would be the result and it is the correct result,” he said.
“It is difficult, in my opinion, in a town like ours which is one of only three or four to have had a moratorium approved, expanding Allen O’Neill to 106 units with the town’s help of a tax abatement and conveying property, and other projects going forward — to see all that and suggest the town isn’t doing enough for affordable housing,” he said.
State statute 8-30g allows developers to overstep local zoning laws in towns such as Darien that do not have 10% of its housing classified as affordable. A developer may get around zoning laws if a proposal includes affordable housing.
The town was granted the four-year moratorium by the state from the state statute in October 2010. The Stefanonis have maintained the town did not earn the required number of points given the housing it used to apply and continues to battle the legitmacy of the moratorium in court.
In June, a New Britain judge dismissed a lawsuit filed in state superior court by the couple against the Department of Economic & Community Development and the town on the grounds that the Stefanonis had no standing because they had no active 8-30 applications at the time. The Stefanonis are in the process of appealing.
The couple twice challenged the Department of Community & Economic Development’s granting of the moratorium with that agency and twice the department reconfirmed the moratorium’s standing before taking it to superior court.
Fox said the town’s approach to the investigation was to cooperate fully, provide the Department of Justice access to as much paperwork, information, and individuals to interview as possible.
“Our position was if you would like to review what we are doing, we are glad to have you do so, because we are happy with what you are doing,” Fox said.