With affordable housing moratorium ended, Bic Drive plan returns

The public will have a second opportunity to comment on a 257-unit apartment building planned on Bic Drive at the corner of Naugatuck Avenue. The Planning and Zoning Board (P&Z) public hearing will continue on Tuesday, Feb. 3 at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall.

With a state moratorium expired, Garden Homes Residential of Stamford, returned to the board at its Jan. 20 public hearing, with a plan calling for the apartment building with an affordable component at 460 Bic Drive.

Garden Homes submitted the plan in 2014 under the state's affordable housing regulations, Connecticut General Statute 8-30g, which would normally override local zoning regulations.

Based on the moratorium, the board had unanimously rejected acceptance of the application at its July 1, 2014 meeting because the proposal did not meet the criteria for the Office District (OD), which only allows one single-family home on the 7.69-acre property.

Garden Homes bought the property from Louise M. Smith for $900,000 on April 15, 2013.

The moratorium

Attorney Thomas Lynch, who represents Garden Homes, told the board at the Jan. 20 public hearing that the moratorium was “buried in the state budget,” which was adopted in May 2014. Lynch said the moratorium applied to towns that had an affordable housing stock between 6 and 10%, a percentage that he said fit Milford.

“That put the kibosh on this local hearing,” said Lynch.

Garden Homes appealed the moratorium, which Lynch labeled “unconstitutional.”

Lynch said that Judge Marshall K. Berger Jr. of the Land Use Litigation Docket brokered a deal between Garden Homes and Milford to present the plan at the first P&Z meeting in January 2015, thus ending the appeal.

Building described

Lynch said the site is well suited to such a project because the topography is elevated and isolates the property from other residential areas. He said the property is connected to Route 1 and I-95 by a 50-foot wide road.

“The natural flow of traffic from this property will continue out on Bic Drive to I-95 and Route 1,” said Lynch. “I dare say very few people will turn left or right [onto Naugatuck Avenue] to the residential areas,” said Lynch.

Lynch said the 8-30g statute allows residential development to take place in the office design district, but not in an industrial district. The H-shaped four-story building will have 194 one-bedroom apartments, and 63 studio apartments. The building would have 322 parking spaces, averaging 1.25 spaces per unit, and Garden Homes could add 42 more parking spaces, if needed.

Lynch said that under this law, Garden Homes “is not bound by zoning regulations. Absent a finding of some public health or safety issue that outweighs the goal of encouraging affordable housing, this application has to be approved.”

The police and fire departments, and the Sewer Commission are in charge of public safety and health in Milford, said Lynch, and as evidence that there are no health and safety issues, “They all approved this without any hesitation.”

The Sewer Commission did ask Garden Homes to reduce the proposed building size from 274 to 257 units, which the company did.

Affordable, not low-income

Lynch stressed that the project “is affordable; it is not low income.” He said young professionals graduating from college and starting their careers are the type of people who would rent these units.

Under the state law, 30% of the units have to be set aside for a 40-year period to be rented at below-market rates to people in two income brackets: 60% or less of the area's median income, and greater than 60% to 80% of the area's median income. There will be 20 studio apartments, and 58 one-bedroom units designated as affordable.

Maximum income to qualify for the affordable studio apartments ranges from $36,288 (60% income level) to $48,384 (80% income level). For the one-bedroom apartments, maximum income is $38,880 (60% income level) to $51,840 (80% income level).

Sample rents for the studio apartments range from $857 maximum (60% income level) to $1,067 maximum (80% income level). Rents for the one-bedroom units range from $902 maximum (60% income level) to $1,108 maxi-mum (80% income level).

Studio apartments will range in size from 500 to 550 square feet and one-bedroom apartments will range in size from 670 to 800 square feet.

Property location

Professional Engineer Steven Trinkaus said the property borders the right of way for the Algonquin gas pipeline, which has an easement through the property. Trinkaus said the pipe is generally four to five feet below the ground.

Algonquin has to supervise any blasting in the area, which he said will be needed to construct the building's western wing, which will be located 70 feet from the right of way. It has permission to construct a portion of the parking lot over the gas line. However, Garden Homes cannot construct a retaining wall within the easement.

Trinkaus said the building will feature a courtyard with a patio area, community pool, and small basketball court. There will also be a dog walk area. The woods will remain to provide a buffer to nearby homes. He said 182 surface parking spaces will be constructed, along with 140 spaces under the building.

Architect Andrew Hennessey said the four-story building will have 51,000 square feet of space per floor, plus the garage underneath. There will be four elevators, a community room, a movie screening room, and an exercise room.

The first floor and garage level will be constructed from steel and concrete with a brick exterior. The upper levels will be made from wood covered by fiber cement siding. The building is designed to be energy efficient “with thermal values roughly double what the code requires,” said Hennessey.

“The goal here is to offer a high-end product at a modest price,” said Hennessey.

Traffic study

Traffic Engineer Bruce Hillson said the sight distances for traffic entering and exiting the property are greater than required for the 85th percentile speed. There is no need to widen Bic Drive to allow cars to turn left into the site because the road is already 40 feet wide, said Hillson. Vehicles leaving the site will be restricted to a right-turn only, heading toward Naugatuck Avenue, due to the limited sight-lines required for a left turn.

Hillson estimates there will be 922 daily vehicle trips entering and leaving the complex. He said traffic effect is expected to be minimal to modest on Bic Drive and the intersections with Naugatuck Avenue, West Avenue and I-95.

Hillson said he did not measure traffic numbers at Rt. 1 because he predicted most cars would use I-95. He estimates about 20 cars would go to Route 1 in the morning and again in the afternoon.

Board member Jim Quish said he has waited in the traffic light on Schoolhouse Road at Rt. 1 for more than one cycle of the light due to the existing volume of traffic.

Board member Jeanne Cervin asked if Garden Homes could construct sidewalks on Bic Drive and Naugatuck Avenue. In response, Lynch said it could be made a condition of approval, but the topography would make it difficulty to construct sidewalks on Naugatuck Avenue.

Garden Homes

Company President Richard Freedman said Garden Homes is a family real estate business. Freedman said the board approved a 36-unit apartment building with affordable units on Cascade Boulevard. He said the building opened in June 2014 and was fully rented within eight weeks, indicating a need for affordable housing.

Freedman said the affordable rents there are limited to $1,143 for a one-bedroom unit. However, he said the market rent for a one-bedroom unit is $1,125, and he rents a studio apartment with a sleeping nook for $1,000.

“These rents are below the higher affordable units,” said Freedman. “The building is effectively 100% affordable. That is by design. The building is precisely what I represented it would be.”

Public Concerns

During the public comment period, no one spoke in favor of the plan, but three people spoke in opposition.

Attorney Diane Whitney represented Northeast Electronics, which is located across the street at 454 Bic Drive. The company has 90 employees, whom she said come at the same time and leave at the same time every day.

Whitney said Northeast has had years of problems with water pressure that it has been unable to resolve with the Regional Water Authority. Without supplemental pumps, “the toilets will not even flush,” said Whitney. She said even if the apartment complex uses the efficient fixtures described in the plans, “there is almost certain to be a serious problem with water pressure.”

Whitney expressed concern about a project that could add 363 cars to the area saying, “This is a heavy industrial area with very large trucks.” She commented on the left-turn prohibition by saying, “This is an admission that the traffic situation is unsafe as planned.” She also questioned locating the building near a high pressure gas pipeline.

“All of this is to suggest this is not an appropriate location for high density residential use in an industrial area,” said Whitney.

Patricia Gutierrez of West Avenue said she worked at the Bic plant for 39 years, and said, “We have had snow storms where you can't get up that hill [north of Naugatuck Avenue],” said Gutierrez. “This area is not made for a lot of traffic.”

Douglas Labrecque of West Rutland Road said he agrees with the water pressure issue, adding, “The Regional Water Authority admits there is low water pressure.” Labrecque also expressed concern that traffic from the apartment would use West Rutland Road to access the Wilbur Cross Parkway.

“If they want to put single-family homes in there, I'm fine with that,” said Labrecque, adding that he believed the number of apartments proposed “is not appropriate for the area.”

Responding to the comments, Lynch said Bic Drive was built to handle the 1,500 people who once worked in three shifts at the Bic Plant. He said the gas pipeline is not a safety issue and that there are specific rules guiding use of gas pipeline areas.

In response to concerns about water pressure, Lynch said, “There is no evidence this building will have an effect on water pressure.” Trinkaus said water tanks could be installed on the apartment roof “if it becomes an issue.” He said sidewalks could not be constructed on Naugatuck Avenue, due to the planned water retention basin and berm.

The board held open the public hearing to gain additional information, including regarding water pressure, traffic data on Rt. 1 at Schoolhouse Road, and sidewalks along the property.