A proposal to lower the age restriction in an affordable housing unit in Darien from 62 to 55 was rejected in a unanimous motion by the town’s Planning & Zoning Commission at a special meeting on July 30.

The unit, put forth by Pemberton 16, LLC, is in the Leroy-West Affordable Housing Overlay Zone, where all residents of the occupied units are required to be 62 years of age or older.

The proposal involved adding a section to the Darien zoning regulations to allow for the creation of housing for people 55 years of age or older within this zone.

John Sini, who resigned July 31 as chairman of the Planning & Zoning Commission, said the key issue in the decision involves parking.

At the Planning & Zoning public hearing on June 25, attorney Robert F. Maslan Jr., who represents Pemberton 16, said he would like the same parking density for those age 55 and older as the required density for parking for the elderly. Housing for the elderly in the town zoning regulations is defined as a dwelling unit where at least one person is 62 years or older.

Sini disagreed with Maslan, saying there is less parking density required for [those who are] 62 years and older because of the general activities in that community,” said Sini, adding that there would be “more activity” in a 55 and older community.

Sini said he’s concerned there would not be enough parking room to satisfy a younger population within that facility.

Reason for requested change

The reason for the requested change is “marketability,” said Maslan at the June 25 public hearing. Maslan is an attorney at Maslan Associates.

“This project has been completed for over two years and as a result of the age restriction, it has not been marketable for sale,” Maslan said.

There has not been enough interest in the units from people age 62 and older, according to Maslan.

Reducing the age restriction to where 80 percent of the units have to have at least one person who is over 55 “would make these more marketable,” Maslan said. “It opens up a larger market for rentals and most likely, sales as well.”

At the July 30 P&Z special meeting, Planning & Zoning Department Director Jeremy Ginsberg said it’s “not really the commission’s role to worry about the financing of the developer, ensuring financial viability.”

Sini added, however, that the idea of 55 and older housing is “probably acceptable to this commission.” However, he said the nature of this request “was not acceptable for that property,” Sini continued.

“I would love in the future to see an applicant come forth with 55 and older housing and design it around that,” he added.

Sini told The Darien Times that “The record is very clear that this property wasn’t originally proposed or developed with anybody but seniors in mind.”

History

Local officials have stressed the importance of creating a diverse housing stock in Darien as aging homeowners often look to migrate away from the town when they decide to downsize. Chris and Margaret Stefanoni originally proposed the Pemberton 16 project in 2008 with five affordable units, but the site plan was rejected by the Planning & Zoning Commission because of its density. However, the Stefanonis challenged the decision in court and were able to have their site plan approved by a state judge based on state statute 8-30g.

State statute 8-30g allows developers to circumvent local zoning in towns that do not meet the state’s affordable housing goals, which include making at least 10 percent of the local housing stock affordable.

While Darien doesn’t meet the goal of statute 8-30g, the town successfully earned a second four-year moratorium on the statute in 2016. Because the town is 97 percent developed, Darien must prove to the state that it is making consistent progress toward the 10 percent affordable housing goal. As it stands, Darien’s housing stock is less than 5 percent affordable.

At the time, Judge Henry Cohn of New Britain explained his decision by saying “The test is whether substantial safety concerns outweigh the need for affordable housing. The commission has not met this test.”

The site plan was approved in court in 2012 and the property was later sold to another developer, Nick Barile, in 2014. Though Barile worked with town boards to review the site plan, the project retained its approved density. Construction on the project finished in 2016, and while the five affordable units have sold in the range of $200,000, the other 11 units in the building are being offered as rentals.

sfox@darientimes.com