‘Artisan Village’ Proves Divisive at Public Hearing
For 3 ½ hours, plans and varying perspectives on a contentious affordable housing proposal were made known at a Planning and Zoning Commission (PZC) meeting at Chester Elementary School on Sept. 14.
The hearing focused on the proposed apartment complex for 47 Middlesex Avenue, dubbed “Artisan Village.” The proposal was brought forth by Honeycomb Real Estate Partners and Vesta Corporation at the first public hearing on the subject on Jan 31. Since then, the proposal for 40 new apartments in Colonial-style buildings has received strong criticism from some community members, including the Concerned Residents of Chester (CRC).
The Sept. 14 hearing comes on the heels of a public meeting organized by the CRC at the Chester Meeting House on Sept. 7, where the group provided an overview of state and local housing goals that lead up to Honeycomb and Vesta’s proposal and “to drive up interest and participation for the Sept. 14 Planning and Zoning Public Hearing,” said member Devin Maloney.
Representatives of Honeycomb and Vesta stepped up to the podium to pitch their case for Artisan Village, complete with a full site plan presentation related to construction, emergency procedures, and alignment with Chester’s 2019-’29 Plan of Conservation and Development (PoCD).
Lewis Brown, managing principal at Honeycomb, acknowledged criticism from residents on the proposal but ensured that the development is aligned with the PoCD and is one that can work within the community and support it from an economic development standpoint.
“This property is actually what was contemplated [by the town] for the very type of housing that we are proposing,” said Brown. “At the end of the day, we will be and want to be a good neighbor.”
Some of the goals of the PoCD are to “encourage the development of diverse housing types, scale, and density in close proximity to commercial areas,” which includes the Village District, and to “designate incentive housing where a higher density of mixed housing options could be achieved.”
To make the case for affordability, Josh Greenblatt at Vesta addressed “misconceptions about affordable housing” and said the proposal is meant to “provide housing that is convenient and proximate to a place of employment.”
He presented on a slide that those working in Chester’s sectors of education, hospitality, and public service could afford a unit at Artisan Village, close to the downtown village area. An example included the ability for a school bus driver earning $49,920 a year qualifying for a one-person apartment unit that may be set at $46,300, 50% of the Area Median Income.
The development’s alignment with PoCD and its fitness with the character of the town was a point of disagreement with some residents once public testimony began.
Karin Badger of the CRC disagreed that development “certainly does not fit the Chester Plan of Conservation and Development” and that “there’s nothing altruistic” about it. She also mentioned community members feeling left out of the process and the density of the project.
“This is a critical development in town that residents should have been included in from the beginning,” said Badger. “The main objection is the density of the complex of this site; 40 units and what amounts to 14 buildings on 1.1 acres behind a parking lot packed up against utility walls does not sound like a good plan. This overwhelms the neighborhood and is undesirable for the future residents.”
Testimonials in opposition saw a variety of concerns also related to a lack of respect for neighbors and what was considered inadequate considerations of public health and safety. Concerns ranged from what was seen as an undercooked traffic study, lack of concern for artificial pollutants such as noise and light, and water contamination affecting neighboring homes during construction.
Appealing to health and safety concerns could be a useful tactic in denying the developers’ application. Language as part of Connecticut State Statute 8-30g does grant municipalities the right to reject an application for affordable housing if there is enough information brought forth to a planning commission that the denial is “necessary to protect substantial public interests in health [and] safety.” This was a point raised by several speakers, including Badger.
Ultimately, while those opposed said they recognized the need for a diversity of affordable housing options, some wanted a more measured approach. Susan Wright of the CRC presented a petition with 106 signatures to “request for a pause…and look at a more collaborative use for the area” that is fair to its neighbors and more strongly considers their health.
Some testimonials were supportive of the proposal, including from resident Bonnie Bennett. While she agreed that the community could be involved in the proposal, she also saw that it does align with the goals of PoCD.
“While I completely understand and sympathize with the concerns of the neighbors, there is value in fostering housing,” said Bennett. “The goal should be, in my opinion, that the neighbors and the developers, and the town should work together to mitigate concerns. In my opinion, there is no better beneficial use with property in Chester than affordable housing.”
Other supportive opinions related to agreed alignment with the PoCD and also what was believed to be the inevitability of similar projects being brought forth to the town in order to satisfy its obligations according to the 8-30g to reach the threshold of 10% of its housing stock being deemed affordable.
Applause from the audience of citizens followed numerous remarks on either side while more enthusiastically following the critical comments on the development.
Given the amount of speakers and opinions to be shared, the commission moved to recess the hearing. Testimony will resume at the next PZC meeting on Thursday, Oct. 12. Written testimonials can be sent to the PZC up to then.
All materials related to the public hearing, including Honeycomb and Vesta’s presentation and recording of the hearing, are available on the PZC’s page on the town’s website, www.chesterct.org/planning-zoning-commission.