Commentary: Milford P&Z has its hands full with affordable housing
Editor's Note: The opinion writer here, Tom Ebersold, is a news correspondent who has covered many of Milford's land use decisions over the years, as well as Planning and Zoning matters in other communities during his years as a reporter.
Affordable housing applications dominated Planning and Zoning Board agendas during the first half of 2015, as the expiration of a 2014 moratorium on such proposals unleashed them on Milford.
As Milford has experienced, the law is written in such a way that zoning boards have little power to regulate affordable housing applications. The law should be revised to provide additional controls regarding height and density.
The concerns regarding density have appeared in small-scale projects, such as the one at 335 Meadowside Road in which 15 two-bedroom apartments and 32 parking spaces will be jammed onto a one-acre property surrounded by single-family homes.
This project and similar ones at 14 Gulf St., 1556 New Haven Ave., and 1613 New Haven Ave. has all essentially announced that is profitable to convert a single-family property into multi-family apartments with up to 18 units per acre.
Such a precedent is a frightening reality to people who live in single-family zones. They should be looking at their neighbors to wonder if that property will be the next to be converted to multi-family use.
None of these smaller proposals have pushed beyond the 35-foot height limit in Milford’s residential zones. However, there is absolutely no provision in the law to prevent a developer from putting in a 10 story building with a parking garage underneath, since court cases have ruled that increased traffic is not a valid condition of denial.
The argument in the Meadowside Road proposal was that the area already has a mix of multi-family complexes, and therefore this fits into the neighborhood.
The counter argument is simple: Milford zoned the property for single-family use. Also, a walk down Meadowside Road shows that the area is predominantly single-family homes. The two condominium complexes both have substantial setbacks from the single-family homes, and also have large lawn areas, both buffering factors that the 335 Meadowside Road plan simply does not have.
Two different developers of large-scale projects have appealed the P&Z denials of their projects to the state’s Land Use Litigation Docket. Past cases have shown that the court will return these applications to the P&Z for a negotiated settlement. The question is what kinds of concessions the board can get from the developers.
The proposal for 180 apartments with 315 bedrooms for a 26-arce parcel behind 440 Wheelers Farms Road drew intense opposition from a group of neighbors, many from East Rutland Road. A mix of business and residential neighbors opposed the proposal for 257 apartments on a 7.68-acre property at 460 Bic Drive.
While the neighbors for the Wheelers Farms Road project raised a number of concerns, when the project is actually built, I think the process will show that most of those worries will not be realized. This project is actually one of the better affordable housing proposals that I have seen. Here’s why.
The Wheelers Farm Road buildings will be set back far from any neighboring homes, and will be buffered by a deed-restricted greenbelt. This protection means that after the 180 apartments are built, there is no way that Milford Developers LLC could return with a plan for a phase two.
While the zone change to a Housing Opportunity District was much criticized by residents, the reality is that the zone includes the details regarding density and height that the 8-30g law fails to provide.
The construction phase calls for monitoring groundwater runoff to measure any potential contaminants from soil and rock work. The aerial pictures clearly showed the area was highly disturbed by the office building construction, and if there were any contaminants, they would have probably surfaced at that time.
I think it would make more sense to do water testing weekly during the early phase of construction, as that is when any contaminants would most likely surface. Even better, while the appeal is taking place, the developer should conduct the deep soil testing requested by neighbors.
At the hearing, the neighbors raised concerns about these potential contaminants, which are a legitimate concern for those with wells: gasoline, MTBE, oil and other motor vehicle fluids, PCBs, lead, and asbestos.
If there were gasoline, oil and other liquids, such as transmission fluid on the property, I would think people would have noticed this in the form of an oily sheen on water, or a strong odor. Even the neighbors who were quite diligent in reporting site problems never provided any evidence of this.
MTBE is a gasoline additive and known ground water contaminant that was introduced in 1979 and banned in Connecticut in 2003. Neighbors testified the property was used as an auto salvage facility in the 1960s and 1970s. This means the chemical was introduced when the junkyard has already closed, or was in the process of closing.
If there are any residual PCBs on the property, they would likely be found in small quantities because they were not widely used in automotive manufacturing and would primarily be found in hydraulic fluids like brake fluid.
If there is any asbestos on the property, such as from brake linings, or lead from gasoline or paint, as experts testified, it would be hard to distinguish from background levels as these are naturally occurring minerals. Asbestos is only a concern when it is inhaled, and lead can easily be filtered from drinking water.
This project received a thorough review from the Inland-Wetlands Agency (IWA) and included some significant concessions from the developer to protect the wetlands and woodlands, and enhance animal habitats.
The IWA also formulated a plan for controlling storm water runoff. In any modern project, the goal is to retain the water onsite until it can soak into the ground, and to reduce water flow from existing conditions. As the project engineer stated, whether this project is built or not, residents will continue to have flooding issues, due to poor drainage systems in their area.
Residents also raised the concern of people using the sewer easement to walk or bicycle over to East Rutland Road. In addition to the locked gate that is already there, I see no reason why someone would walk over to East Rutland Road, which is narrow with no shoulder or sidewalks. They are also not likely to bicycle over a rough gravel road when they could easily pedal out the paved road to Wheelers Farms Road.
With regard to emergency access, the fire department would reach the property through the main driveway. If that was blocked off for some reason, they could get there through the parking lots of the neighboring office buildings, or from the Milford Parkway. While it would be ideal if the ladder trucks could reach the rear of the buildings, a three-story building could be accessed easily enough with a portable ladder.
The other major concern of neighbors was the traffic this proposal will generate. Certainly 180 apartments will generate hundreds of cars a day, but most of that impact will happen on Wheelers Farms Road.
Residents will have easy access to the Wilbur Cross Parkway, which is half a mile north of the development. To reach I-95 North, their best access is via Wheelers Farms Road to the Milford Parkway. The only residential properties between the apartments and the parkways are the house at Filanowski Farm and the condominiums at Southwick of Milford.
If apartment dwellers wish to access I-95 South or shopping areas on the Boston Post Road, they will head south on Wheelers Farms Road, which passes a number of homes. I see little traffic impact on East Rutland Road, since there is no obvious destination in that direction, unless they are headed to one of the churches.
The biggest traffic impact to East Rutland Road has already occurred and that is the construction of Lexington Green, whose residents have close access to the parkway via East Rutland Road. These neighbors will also see a traffic impact from the apartments on Bic Drive, as East Rutland Road is also the most direct access to the parkway for them.
I suggest these improvements to address the concerns raised by neighbors: install a sign on Wheelers Farms Road approaching East Rutland Road warning “Low Bridge, Height 12’9’” so trucks know not to make that turn.
To improve visibility for those turning north on Wheelers Farms Road from East Rutland Road, shave off the lip of the hill on Wheelers Farm Road to improve visibility.
Finally, to address the drainage concerns, the city should upgrade the drainage systems in the area to allow water to flow downstream, rather than collect in people’s backyards.
If they had to trade, I don’t think the neighbors would opt for the plan on Bic Drive, which has buildings up to at 55 feet in height, well beyond the city’s height limit. That project has no open space and limited buffers to neighboring properties.
The Bic Drive plan calls for one giant building with parking underneath, which is a serious concern for fire safety, as compared to the Wheelers Farm Road building with 10 separate buildings and a separate parking lot that provide a natural firebreak.
Fire access is a definite issue at the Bic Drive property with the entrance road passing over a high-pressure natural gas pipeline. Due to the steep topography, there is no other access to the property for emergency equipment.
Many heavy trucks pass by the Bic Drive property throughout the day carrying soil, cement, and trash. They descend a short, steep hill through a blind turn to Naugatuck Avenue.
Those interested in reading the full text of the 8-30g law can find it here: