EDITORIAL: Saddle Ridge slog

The long Saddle Ridge slog entered a new phase Monday when the Easton Planning and Zoning Commission voted 5-0 to approve the controversial housing development that includes designated affordable houses and duplex units. The site is in a public watershed area.

Saddle Ridge Developers LLC won zoning approval to build a 66-unit development of single-family homes and duplexes on 124.7 acres that border Sport Hill, Westport (Route 136), Cedar Hill, and Silver Hill roads. The development would be named Easton Crossing.

All 48 residential buildings would be on lots of at least one acre and be served by individual wells and septic systems. About one-third of the overall site would remain as undeveloped open space, and 14 acres would continue to be a separate horse farm. Access to the site would be from a new road connecting to Sport Hill and Cedar Hill roads.

Twenty of the 66 residences — nine houses and 11 duplex units — would be classified as affordable housing under state law 8-30g. The developer sought to rezone the parcel from three-acre, single-family home zoning to a newly created Planned Housing Opportunity zone.

Easton Crossing is the first affordable housing project ever approved in Easton and approval came after months of hearings and deliberations. The commission imposed multiple conditions intended to protect the watershed and the town in rendering its difficult decision.

Whether the 10-year saga surrounding the project will result in construction actually getting underway will depend on potential appeals that could come from several sources.

Saddle Ridge opponents, including neighbors and legal intervenors, will have to decide whether to head to court in an effort to stop the housing development.

The developer might go to court to protest the many conditions the P&Z requires to lessen the impact on the environment.

The Saddle Ridge application was filed under the state’s affordable housing law, known as statute 8-30g, which places a high burden on municipalities when denying such plans, especially towns with limited affordable housing stock such as Easton. A special legal process has been established for developers to appeal local land use board denials of affordable housing applications, with developers winning many of the cases.

Perhaps an offhanded remark 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.

The commissioners agreed with Chairman Robert Maquat, who said the chance that a judge could overturn a P&Z denial of the application, imposing few if any conditions, was a greater risk than approving Saddle Ridge with many strict conditions.

The town’s outside engineer concluded that the final development plan, based both on changes voluntarily made by the applicant and on many improvements required during the zoning process, wouldn’t negatively impact the watershed or wetlands more than previous plans for the same site that received either approval or partial approval by Easton land use boards in the past.

Faced with deciding between a rock and a hard place, P&Z chose what it thinks is the better of two evils after thoughtful deliberations and hearing from residents.

It’s easy to criticize but abundantly difficult to govern when the stakes are so high. Denying the application might have made opponents happier but came at too high a risk in the opinion of the commissioners.

Now either the appeals will begin or the project will get underway. Time will tell if this is the end of the long, hard slog or just a new chapter.

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