BERLIN — Residents showed overwhelming opposition to a text amendment that would pave the way for a 319-unit apartment complex on Atkins Street during a Planning and Zoning Commission public hearing on July 11.
The applicant, Rio Vista Associates LLC, submitted a text amendment to create an affordable residential planned development overlay zone and have it applied to 19 acres of property along Atkins Street. William Krame, principal for Rio Vista Associates LLC, the applicant, said he’s committed to the concept plan he’s shown at past hearings, where 11 multistory buildings would be built, with housing for an estimated 487 residents.
Objections to plans for the land centered around adding additional vehicles to a rural road residents already consider unsafe, the ability of local schools to absorb a jump in enrollment, and the compatibility of an apartment complex with the surroundings.
"If this is approved and that goes in, it is only a matter of time before there will be a very, very serious accident there," said Stacia Grosso, a Middletown resident who lives at the base of a hill on Atkins Street.
Former Mayor Arthur Powers said infrastructure and services in East Berlin like the fire department and Hubbard Elementary School weren’t built with high density use in mind.
"I've always said we should have healthy growth in this community and we've had it," he said. "The whole concept of this kind of growth in the community is not healthy.”
Residents and members of the commission referenced a 2008 settlement agreement which included a deed restriction on the land, which prohibited any use outside what the current low density zoning allows for. Robert Berchem, an attorney with Berchem and Moses, who is representing the LLC, said the agreement is a legal issue outside the purview of the commission, whose authority is limited to zoning issues.
He also submitted a legal memorandum arguing that the restrictions no longer apply due to a 2011 law which set an expiration date for subdivisions. The memo claims that since the deed restrictions are aimed at the subdivision created in 2008, which would have expired in July 2017, they no longer apply to the property.
At an earlier hearing on June 6, Berchem told the commission that because the town is below the state’s goal of having ten percent of its housing stock considered affordable, under state statute 8-30g the town’s ability to limit or reject the proposal is limited to action to protect a “substantial public interest in health, safety or other matters which the board may legally consider and which clearly outweighs the need, legislatively approved, for affordable housing.”
At the July hearing Berchem said affordable housing is needed in town to give local workers a chance to live in the community they work in, allow college students to stay close to home and provide the elderly a place to scale-down.
"There's an effort here to recognize that people who live in town or work in town, candidly, don't necessarily make enough to buy in town. This project ... will allow a teacher, a fireman, a policeman, to stay in Berlin if he wants to. Right now, the availability of rental stock is simply so low as to be almost non-available," he said.
Krame noted that the median income used to determine what is considered affordable in Berlin is an annual income of around $96,000. The state’s two tiers of affordability, 60 percent and 80 percent of the local median income, would be around $77,000 and $58,000.
Town Planner Marek Kozikowski said the town has nearly reached the threshold of affordable housing with 9.23 percent of the housing in town qualifying, and he expects the town to cross it in the near future with upcoming developments in existing affordable housing zones. Only two other municipalities are closer to the 10 percent goal than Berlin and 29 are above the target.
"The Planning and Zoning Commission, and by extension the Berlin community, has embraced affordable housing in town and recognizes the importance of providing affordable rental housing to young adults, the elderly and working families," he said.
While they both acknowledged they had a professional disagreement on some of the facts of the case, the discourse veered on heated between Berchem, the commission and the audience, which often heckled the attorney.
After being interrupted by laughter when he stated that the development "does not encroach upon or adversely affect the surrounding neighborhood," Berchum continued. "Well, perhaps at this point the compatibility of neighborhood is something I could question.”
Commissioner Timothy Zigmont interrupted Berchum while he was questioning Kozikowski later in the meeting and said, “the sarcastic remarks from you, sir, are not appreciated in this room ... please use respect for our town planner.”