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Tempers flare at final hearing for affordable housing plan in Simsbury

By Paul Palmer

Staff Writer

A rendering of the proposed 60-unit apartment building.

SIMSBURY – The final public hearing concerning a proposed affordable housing project in Simsbury turned into a public spectacle the evening of Monday, May 1. Some opponents of the proposed 60-unit apartment building that would be built along Hopmeadow Street frequently interrupted members of the Zoning Commission as well as representatives of the developer, Vessel Technologies.

Neighbors living near the site along the east side of Hopmeadow Street have been attending every meeting of every committee and commission that has been involved with deciding if the project should be approved. The week prior to the meeting, the Conservation Commission/ Inland, Wetlands Agency granted a critical approval to the plan, leaving the Zoning Commission as the final authority in Simsbury to decide if the plans would come to fruition.

In its fourth night of a public hearing that has stretched on for months, Zoning Commission reminded public speakers that the pervue of the commission was limited on this proposal. In order to say no to the application, it needed to be shown that there was a public safety or public health danger that could not be corrected by the developer. The parameters are set by the state’s 8-30g statue on affordable housing which severely limits the objections that can be used to deny applications in municipalities that do not have at least 10% of housing that Connecticut defines as affordable.

Vessel’s proposal would included 60 units, with the required 20% based on median income levels as defined by the state statute. Simsbury’s affordable housing rate was last assessed at 5.9%. Zoning Commission member and state Rep. Melissa Osborne opened the meeting by saying she felt the numbers were being misused. “I take issue with his (Vessel’s lawyer) interpretation that we are required to have 10% affordable housing.” She added that Simsbury is addressing the issue and has made progress on housing cost barriers. “We need to weigh this application against Simsbury’s reduction in housing cost barrier. 10% was never supposed to be a required level,” Osborne added.

Residents packed the meeting room at the Simsbury Public Library and were prepared to argue their concerns before the Commission. Many took to the podium to continue to express concerns about the site of the project, the size of the parcel it would be constructed on, its impact on the nearby wetlands and Second Brook, possible flooding and traffic issue that may occur, as well as other issues.

“This could have been designed for less than 60 units,” said Sharon Thomas, who added that hers was not an argument against providing affordable housing.

Ann McDonald, whose Hazel Meadow home sits directly on the site line of the proposed building echoed those sentiments. “I’m not opposed to development, but I feel this needs to be scaled down more,” she said.

Several speakers were reminded by Zoning Chair Dave Rodgers Ryan that their comments needed to be in line with actions that fell under the authority of the Zoning Commission and in particular of what its role is in the Vessel project. He was often met with jeers from people gathered who yelled to “let them talk,” and “you work for us,” when he asked speakers to stay on topic.

At one point, a speaker, Awieda Parsons of Crestwood Road, told the Commission members that if they approved the project, “you guys will not get voted back in.” She added that Simsbury should look to rehabilitate dead spaces in town and said any approval for the Vessel plan would be shameful. Many of the objections raised Monday had to do with issues that the Inlands-Wetlands Agency had dealt with in their hearings and in their final approval.

Others expressed their belief that the expert testimony given by engineers hired by Vessel should not be the only ones considered.

“All the experts were paid for by them (Vessel),” said Kelly Rothfuss. “We’ve asked for independent studies and that has never been addressed.” Rothfuss’ home sits below Vessel’s proposed site and she has told the Commission that she already experiences flooding problems and fears that the new development will only make things worse.

Vessel’s attorney Peter Alter opened the comments at the public hearing by reminding the commission that every other town agency that needed to have already signed off on the plans. Alter added that courts have ruled in the past that expert testimony outweighs non-expert opinions when it comes to matters in these decisions.

“Nowhere in the record is there evidence of specific harm or safety issue shown on this 8-30g application,” he said. “General concerns do not serve as expert testimony.”

When Alter returned to speak near the end of the meeting someone in the audience yelled “ nice suit” and then a group of residents walked out of the meeting before he spoke. Vessel’s executive VP Josh Levy also had to deal with numerous shouted interruptions from those gathered. “ A lot of discussion about existing flooding and traffic at this site is based on the presumption that this can be attributed to a development that doesn’t exist,” Levy said. “In all these discussions, at no point has anyone come up with plans to address affordable housing.” His comments were interrupted by shouts from those gathered that he “had to stick to the rules,” and admonished the Chairman to “ make him address the topic.”

At the end of the raucous meeting, the Zoning Commission voted to close the public hearing- meaning it cannot accept any more testimony from either side. It declined to begin discussion or take a vote on the application, instead deciding to move that to its next scheduled meeting on May 15. The Zoning Commission must issue its decision within 35 of receiving the report from the Conservation Commission/Inland Wetlands Agency, which issued its affirmative finding on April 25.

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