Saddle Ridge opponents in the community, including neighbors, will now have to decide whether to head to court in an effort to stop the housing development.
On Monday, the Planning and Zoning Commission voted 5-0 to approve the controversial plan that includes 20 affordable units. It is the first affordable housing project ever approved in Easton.
The approval came after months of hearings and deliberations by the commission, and includes multiple conditions — or requirements of the developer — intended to protect the environment and the town.
Perhaps an off-handed remark at the final March 13 meeting on Saddle Ridge by P&Z voting member Ross Ogden best summed up the commission’s reluctance to approve the proposal. While discussing a possible approval condition, Ogden said Easton may be “getting jammed” by how affordable housing applications affect the town.
Resident Debbie Klein, whose property borders the Saddle Ridge site, was upset at the approval. “They killed Easton tonight,” she said, expressing concerns about the potential impact on her drinking well, pond and property value.
“You save all your life to buy three acres, and then this,” Klein said.
The Saddle Ridge application was filed under the state’s affordable housing law, known as 8-30g, which places a high burden on municipalities when denying such plans, especially towns with limited affordable housing such as Easton.
The Saddle Ridge affordable units will include single-family houses and duplex units, comprise almost one-third of all units, and be deed-restricted for 40 years.
P&Z Chairman Robert Maquat said the chance that a judge could overturn a P&Z denial of the application, then impose few if any conditions, “is a greater risk than being proactive” by approving Saddle Ridge with many strict conditions.
Member Robert DeVellis agreed, saying valid concerns about the project “are outweighed over what could happen” if a judge let the development move forward without all the conditions. DeVellis said weeks of deliberations by the P&Z led to imposing additional conditions to improve the plan.
Member Wallace Williams called the many approval conditions “very critical” to protecting the public water supply watershed for nearby reservoirs, adding the conditions “will have to be abided by.”
Voting member Ray Martin said a major turning point in the application process was when the town’s engineering consultant said the proposed plan could be “less impactful” than allowing three-acre housing lots on the property.
The town’s outside engineering expert concluded that the Saddle Ridge plan, as modified during the process, would not have more of an impact on wetlands or the watershed than other housing plans previously approved or partially approved for the site by land use boards.
In 2014, a somewhat similar affordable housing plan for the site received town wetlands approval but was rejected by the P&Z for non-environmental reasons. And in 2009, the P&Z approved a 21-lot subdivision of single-family homes on the property.
Impervious coverage will be limited to 10% on the overall 110-acre project site, and to 13% on each individual housing lot. Lot deeds will make specific reference to the 13% maximum so future property owners understand the restriction. “Impervious” means water does not drain into the ground, and includes buildings, roads and paved driveways.
The developer will have to hire an independent site engineer to oversee the development on behalf of the town. A reserve fund must be established to pay for needed inspections, maintenance and repairs, holding a balance to cover two years of such work as determined by the site engineer. Fund updates must be provided to the town four times a year.
The town will have the right to access the reserve fund if required work is not done by the developer or homeowners’ association (HOA). A separate surety bond also is required.
The developer and HOA must show that state affordability plan rules are met when renting or selling affordable units, and affordable units are to be built in each development phase and dispersed throughout the site. A 14-acre horse farm may not be part of a future 8-30g application.
After the vote, Maquat said 8-30g was a major factor in the P&Z decision. “If you have a problem with the statute, talk to your state legislators,” he said.
Opponents, including those who became legal interveners in the application process, could now appeal the P&Z approval in court. It’s also possible the developer may go to court to try to overturn some of the P&Z’s conditions. The developer still is appealing some wetlands approval conditions from the 2014 application.
Some previous P&Z denials of Saddle Ridge affordable housing proposals, appealed by the developer, have been upheld in court.
Some have questioned if the project, especially with all the P&Z conditions, makes any economic sense for a developer to pursue. “I can only pray the rumors I’ve heard, that it won’t be built and it was only to break zoning [in Easton], are true,” said Klein, the upset neighbor.
Saddle Ridge Developers LLC would build the Easton Crossing project on 124.7 acres that border four roads — Sport Hill, Westport (Route 136), Cedar Hill, and Silver Hill. A new road would connect Sport Hill and Cedar Hill roads.
Twenty residences — nine of the 30 houses and 11 of the 36 duplex units — would be classified as affordable housing under 8-30g. All lots would be at least one acre and be served by individual wells and septic systems. About one-third of the overall site would remain as open space, and 14 acres would continue to be a separate horse farm.
The developer wants to rezone the parcel from three-acre, single-family home zoning to a newly created Planned Housing Opportunity zone.