Some opponents of low-income housing in Branford say the town will no longer be quaint, and the neighborhood will no longer be safe, if poor families are allowed to move into the proposed Parkside Village I apartments.
About 150 people attended the second session of a public hearing conducted by the Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission last Thursday night at Fire Headquarters. Neighbors are questioning whether proposed low-income housing on South Montowese Street should be for seniors and people with disabilities; or for people of all ages.
William Woermer (pictured) of 17 Creek Court, said he fears drug usage, domestic disturbances, and young people partying if families are allowed to move in. He said he has seen mixed usage in housing projects in cities and it doesn’t work.
“Retirees, disabled, old people — I have no objection to renovate the whole place and make it nice for them,” Woermer said. “But don’t get too much of that riffraff in.”
He said families from Parkside will walk to the beach. “What if someone drowns there? Is the town libel for it? Lot of kids, lot of families — more beach-goers.”
He said he has lived in the neighborhood two years and likes the “quaintness” of Branford. He said low-income families will put a drain on town services and schools.
The current Parkside Village I is a dilapidated three-building complex at 115 S. Monowese St. which houses 50 low-income seniors and people with disabilities. It does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The proposal calls for construction of one building with 67 units that would not be age-restricted. Branford’s Housing Authority said all current tenants will be re-housed in the new building.
Many neighbors expressed concerns about opening up residency to low-income families. The same issues were raised at the first session of the hearing that was held in October.
“I don’t think anyone here is opposed to seniors,” said Todd Petrowski (pictured) of 67 S. Montowese St. “ I think that’s a great idea. They should have proper living conditions. But I think what the problem is they shouldn’t be mixed in with low-income or Section 8 people. That brings a different element to the town. Seniors don’t deserve kids running up and down the hallway. And also, what kind of crime is going to happen? “
Thursday’s hearing lasted 3 1/2 hours, including two hours of public comments. The hearing will continue Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. at the community room at Fire Headquarters.
Residential Racial Segregation
Jay Pottenger (pictured), a Branford resident and a clinical professor at Yale Law School, said there is a need for affordable housing in Branford.
“In my opinion, this project is the best way to serve that need. The proposed project will increase the number of units that are available, many of which will indeed be occupied by elderly people,” Pottenger said. “It will make also housing available for elderly couples…So, the folks’ concern for elderly housing will be met by this project.”
Pottenger has been a member of the board of the Branford Interfaith Housing Coalition for many years, which includes all denominations in town. He is familiar with the local and regional housing needs.
“This town needs more affordable housing. It needs it for all ages in a range of incomes,” Pottenger said.
He also spoke about another issue, which he said is not easy to discuss. He said one of the biggest problems in Connecticut and in Branford is racial segregation — residential racial segregation.
“Racial segregation is a problem in Branford as well as in Connecticut. Some of the testimony tonight about Section 8 and riffraff speaks unfortunately to that problem and that issue,” he said.
“I care about this town,” he said. “If we open up our town, we will benefit and we will be better for this. And what we will be opening up the town for, is to give other people the opportunity to live in this great community.”
He said there are already low-income people living in Branford —-26 percent of school kids are eligible for the free and reduced lunch program. He also said the school superintendent told him there are 19 students who are technically homeless. Pottenger said the school population is decreasing, and an increase of children would not put a burden on the district.
“Please give this project your support and your approval,” he asked the P&Z commission.
A Better Life for Tenants
Jamie Kavanaugh (pictured), a resident of Parkside Village I, is president of the Parkside Village Association which was formed a year ago to represent the tenants. “The vast majority do support this project. They want it to move forward.”
He said the current buildings are decrepit, and that 40 of the 50 units are efficiency apartments that are only 250 square feet or less. In addition, wheelchairs cannot get through the doorways to bathrooms.
Kavanaugh said the new building is desperately needed.
“It would be like a real apartment complex with services that would make our lives a lot easier. Especially the size of the kitchens would improve. It may not mean much to you people, but to have a full-size stove that doesn’t set the fire alarm off every time you try to cook something, it would make a difference. And a bathroom, when I need a wheelchair every once in awhile, I could get into the bathroom, and I wouldn’t have to crawl around on the floor. These are the kinds of things this (new) facility represents to us,” Kavanaugh said.
He said there was a lot of discussion when Parkside Village opened up to include disabled people. “And it’s worked out well for both parties, and I think that it would work out well with the introduction of families.”
Carolyn Sires (pictured), of 98 S. Montowese, one of the organizers of the neighborhood protest, brought several boxes of materials to the hearing, containing her “in-depth research” on the proposed project.
She said seniors and disabled people deserve better housing, but she fears they may not be transferred to the new building. She wants a signed letter stating that all current residents will be rehoused at the new Parkside.
Sires also suggested there should be a Phase 1 survey conducted to determine if there are any Native American artifacts at the site. She invited Native Americans to attend the next meeting.
“There are so many questions that still need to be answered,” she said. “And we’re hoping we could have the time to bring you all the materials and we will be more than happy to accommodate and find the information and submit it to you in a timely fashion,” Sires told the commission.
State 8-30g Housing
Beacon Communities LLC of Boston is developing the project for the Housing Authority and is applying under state statute 8-30g affordable housing oversight. The developers are requesting a new zoning designation for the site, which would be called “Parkside Assisted Housing District.” The site is currently zoned Residential 3.
P&Z Chair Chuck Andres said state statute 8-30g operates under different rules than other proposals. “If the application doesn’t conform with the regulations, that per se is not a reason for denial,” he said. If the commission denies the project and an appeal is filed, the commission has the burden of proof. They must show that the decision was supported by the evidence on the public record and that it was based on substantial public health or safety issues, and that those issues outweigh the need for affordable housing.
Andres asked whether it would be possible to change the application to age-restricted, since so many of the neighbors are concerned about that issue.
“From the comments that I’ve heard so far, one of the concerns is the change from an age-restricted to a non-age-restricted community.” Andres said there seems to be three benefits for keeping age restrictions— potential parking issues would be reduced; community acceptance would improve; and the Housing Authority would not dilute its ability to serve senior citizens.
Doug Denes, chair of the Housing Authority said that is something that has been discussed for five years. “We are very aware of these issues,” he said. “We came to the conclusion that the relatively small number of families with small children who would be living here are actually a really good thing. The diversity in ages … a lot of people like diversity, and they like to be around young people.”
Denes said there are parks in the vicinity and many children in the surrounding neighborhood. “This seems like almost a perfect place for a young family to live, and we think it’s a pretty terrific thing,” he said.
Attorney Timothy Hollister, a partner at Shipman & Goodwin in Hartford who represents the developers, also spoke about the age issue.
“Age-restricted housing is widely misunderstood,” Hollister said. “Think about it. Age restricted housing is discrimination against people who are not in the age-restricted category… which is why the federal government, under the Fair Housing Acts, will only allow age-restricted housing under very tight conditions.” Hollister said he would put the information in writing before the next meeting.
Hollister also answered questions raised by the commissioners and neighbors at the last meeting, and said he will fully address new issues at the next meeting.
The developers filed site plan revisions prior to the hearing in response to comments by the town planner, staff and neighbors. “We haven’t changed the plan at all,” Hollister said. “We are really in response mode, responding to public comments and staff comments.” The plan revisions addressed building height, expected population, parking and potential Melrose Avenue access.
Town attorney Bill Aniskovich and First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove attended the meeting but did not speak. Attorney Danielle M. Bercury, of Brenner, Saltzman & Wallman, the town’s law firm, was also in attendance.