After more than 10 hours of testimony from residents and developers, the Berlin Planning & Zoning Commission voted 5-2 to reject the zoning change request from Metro Realty to put senior and market rate housing on the property of the former Kensington Grammar School.
The P&Z met for the fourth time to hear public input on the development and closed the public hearing at 8:18 p.m. After a short break, the commission decided to debate and deliberate over the proposal immediately.
Chairman Bruce Moore read a long letter from town corporation counsel about the impact of 8-30G in the Connecticut General Statues, commonly known as the Affordable Housing Appeals Procedure. Section 8-30G was enacted in 1989. This section of the statutes applies to cases where a developer proposes building affordable housing in any town where less than 10 percent of existing housing can be described as affordable (meaning a household earning less than 60-80% of the state or area's median income must spend no more than 30% of its income on total housing costs). If a town zoning or planning commission rejects a developer's application to build affordable housing in a residential area, the developer can then appeal the town's decision and the burden of proof would be on the town to prove that rejecting the development was, "necessary to protect substantial public interests in health, safety, or other matters…such public interests clearly outweigh the need for affordable housing; and…such public interests cannot be protected by reasonable changes to the affordable housing development."
“Mr. Sager (Jeff Sager of Metro Realty) said he will not appeal and in all the dealings we have had with him, I do not think he would do that,” Moore said. “What I am concerned about is that this proposal has not gone lets say under the radar and there is no guarantee that someone else will come in and use 8-30G and we will have no zoning power. I think we may look back and say ‘why didn’t we take the Metro plan?’”
Moore then opened discussion to the other commissioners. Kevin Murphy agreed with Moore and thought the project should be approved because there was no guessing what could come behind this development if it was not approved.
Brad Parsons said that having a few "young professionals" living at home with him allowed him to be of the opinion that there will be more traffic than the complex could reasonably handle. Steve Wollman said he was torn because of the quality construction Metro has done in town but "I can’t predict the future. I hope we’re not back here and the neighbors are having a much more dense project pushed on them."
Moore then took the vote. He and Murphy voted in favor of the project while all five of the other commissioners voted against it.
"It was tough to sit through the deliberations because I couldn't get a feel for which way they were going to vote," said Jim Newman, an advocate for St. Paul's against the market rate apartments. "We feel good about it but were not elated. There is a lot of work to be done. Do we think the Zoning Board made the right decision? Yes we do.
"We just don't know what will happen from here but this gives us and the town additional time to see what fits there. This process felt rushed so we're pleased that we have more time. I was impressed with the uniformity of the town's opinion and the overwhelming testimony against the project. I thought everybody was very well-behaved and respectful including the developers."
Resident Tony Ryba, who spoke passionately about growing up in the neighborhood, admitted he was surprised by the vote.
"When this started I thought we only had a small shot to stop it or at least hold it up," Ryba said. "I understand what the first two commissioners were saying about you don't know what could possibly go in there and it might be worse. To me, it can't diminish how the neighborhood came together and had their voices heard. I'm not sure what the solution is and I'm not sure what's next but everybody on the commission and at Town Hall and the Mayor were very helpful. I was happy to see they listened and they really seemed to care."
Attorney Dennis Kern, another advocate for the church and school, said the next step could be the most important one.
"There is a chance that sometimes you lose when you win, I just hope this is not the case," Kern said. "The neighbors and the church were successful in showing the problems with the proposal now they need to work with the neighbors to see what can be done there. I think the town should ask the owner permission to do a detailed examination of the building for safety issues. I hope something positive can be done. It was a complex issue and the Planning & Zoning Commission carried out the will of the residents and represented them well."