Welcome to Snob Zones, a forum for exploring how and why communities keep people out, the social consequences of exclusion, and possible solutions. First up: resistance to co-housing.
Non-traditional forms of housing can be a hard sell, particularly in New England, and especially when they involve density. A case in point is the ongoing campaign to build a co-housing development in Bethany, Ct.
Bethany is a proudly rural town (pop. 5,500) surrounded by more densely developed communities in New Haven County. More than half of the town’s land is undeveloped, primarily because of the presence of public drinking water supplies. Zoning requires that houses be on either 1 ½ or 3 acres.
In short, Bethany is a sparsely developed town of single-family homes on large tracts of land. Median sale prices have lately hovered around $315,000. When a group of serious-minded people called Green Haven came in with a plan to build smaller, less expensive homes, it didn’t go over well.
Green Haven has been looking for a place to build what would be Connecticut’s first co-housing community for at least six years. (For those unfamiliar with co-housing, the basic concept is to promote collaboration and community. Residents own their own homes, which are clustered together, but share various common facilities and outdoor space.) The site Green Haven settled on in Bethany is a former dairy farm covering nearly 33 acres. They’ve lined up highly regarded Centerbrook Architects to design small, energy-efficient homes.
Sounds harmless enough, right? Not for Bethany. When Green Haven brought their proposal before the planning and zoning commission last spring, hundreds of people turned out to oppose it.
I watched recordings of the public hearings, and it seems that the primary objection was to Green Haven’s request that the commission create an overlay zone that would allow for denser development on the site. The zone would allow for up to 35 homes. Significantly, however, at least half the land would be preserved – the group intends to do some organic farming.
Now one can see why such a proposal might worry people who are accustomed to living among three-acre lots. But as it happens, this particular property is already zoned for even more homes. A number of years ago a developer proposed a senior affordable housing development there. The zoning commission rejected the proposal, and the developer appealed in court under the state’s affordable housing law. A state judge ruled for the developer and imposed a “housing opportunity” zone on the site that allowed for 48 units. But the developer never followed through.
Nevertheless, Green Haven’s proposal — which would cover much less of the site — was greeted as a sinister attack on the town’s rural character because, opponents claimed, one cluster development would invite many more. From the Bethwood Patch:
The first opponent to speak was Anthony Esposito of Meyers Road who presented petitions signed by 1,375 Bethany residents opposed to the OSHD proposal. He also displayed a map of Bethany identifying 2,000 acres scattered all over town that he said might be developed for cluster housing if the amendment is approved.
“If the commission votes for this proposal it will be challenged in court,” said Esposito, and he received loud applause.
The project quickly became a political hot potato and the zoning commission ultimately rejected it.
BUT Green Haven is not leaving town. According to member Dick Margulis, they will again submit the co-housing proposal, only this time as an affordable housing project — just like the senior housing developer. By agreeing to put income restrictions on 30 percent of their homes, Green Haven raises the bar. If the project is rejected again, and Green Haven appeals, under the law, the burden will be on the town to prove that the threat to the health, safety and/or welfare of the public outweighs the need for affordable housing.
Here we have the classic clash over what constitutes town character. Can you protect rural qualities while allowing for some higher-density housing? We’ll revisit this debate as it plays out.