Town settles civil rights lawsuit

The Town of Darien has settled a 4-year-old lawsuit against the Planning & Zoning Commission claiming the town rejected an affordable housing development proposal on the basis of discrimination against minorities.

Plaintiff Chris Hamer will be paid $150,000 under the settlement, according to his attorney, New Haven-based John Williams.

Two years ago, a federal judge dropped the name of former Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Fred Conze from the suit, granting him legislative immunity for his actions, but ruled the claims against the town should proceed. The case had been set to go to trial last month, Williams said.

Williams said the settlement represented a vindication of Hamer’s claims.

“I think the settlement is a terrific settlement that sends a message about how to treat people more fairly,” Williams said. “There has been a political change in Darien and hopefully the new leadership will take a lesson from this and do away with the old policy of ‘whites only.’”

Filed in November 2011 by Hamer, the suit brought claims under the Fourteenth Amendment against the town and Conze, contending the Planning & Zoning Commission denied him permits in 2008 to build 10 affordable residential units on Oak Crest Drive, and worked with neighbors of Hamer to file a lawsuit which resulted in him losing the land in foreclosure.

The litigation also claimed the town was attempting to exclude minorities, specifically blacks, from moving into town by denying affordable housing projects to keep housing prices too high, according to the suit.

Conze referred questions about the lawsuit to Darien Town Attorney John Wayne Fox.

Fox emphasized that the settlement had been put forward by the town’s insurance company who will pay the settlement, and who recommended accepting it.

“To tie an equal protection claim to a housing discrimination claim is rather difficult,” Fox said. “This was a gentleman who came to the town basically seeking a subdivision of his property and when that was denied he sought to make an affordable housing proposal. They were denied for a number of valid reasons including environmental issues.”

Fox said arguing that land use officials in the town based their decision on racial intolerance rather than actual environmental and other valid concerns doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny given the building of larger affordable housing developments such as the 106-unit Heights of Darien built in 2012.

The Heights was a centerpiece of the town’s rejected application in March for a second four-year moratorium on affordable housing moratorium that would have allowed the town to reject affordable housing proposals that overstep local land use limits.

“If you want to be disingenuous you can make that argument but if you go out and see what Darien has done and continues to do with a development like the Heights of Darien, it is difficult to make it with a straight face,” Fox said.

Conze left the Planning & Zoning Commission in 2013 after serving two decades on the panel.

During a 2008 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, Conze described the increased density of affordable housing in Darien as a “virus.” At the annual town meeting in 2010, Conze again made negative comments regarding affordable housing.

“Our objective is to preserve the character of our town,” Conze said at the meeting. “The demographic and economic forces generated by our immediate neighbors to our east and west cannot be taken lightly. I have spoken of these forces in past town addresses. . . . Many view Darien as a housing opportunity regardless of its effect on the character of our town and existing home values.”