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Contested Affordable Housing Units To Stay In SoNo

NORWALK, Conn. – A controversial proposal from a South Norwalk developer was denied Wednesday night by the zoning commission.

Commissioners voted 4-3 to deny a request from Spinnaker Real Estate Partners LLC to move eight affordable housing units at 20 N. Water St. to 50 Connecticut Ave.

The proposal had prompted accusations of racism from South Norwalk activists, including Ward B Democratic Chairman Bobby Burgess.

Before the vote, the commissioners debated the merits of the argument made by Spinnaker in asking for the change, the timing of the request and the decisions made at last week’s meeting of the commission’s committees.

Clayton Fowler of Spinnaker said at last week’s meeting that an affordable housing unit onsite would cost his company about $300,000. Commissioner Adam Blank said that cost included prorating the cost of the building’s retail space into the cost per apartment. He said that not moving the workforce housing offsite would spare Spinnaker the cost of buying the Connecticut Avenue building.

Commissioners Mike Mushak and Harry Rilling said they were disappointed that Fowler could not speak at Wednesday’s meeting. By denying a public hearing last week, the plan review committee not only prevented opponents from speaking but Fowler as well.

Fowler’s request came within two weeks of the demolition of the Norwalk Co. building at 20 N. Water St., prompting some to wonder whether the city was being pressured to accept the plan , given that the prominent space across from the Maritime Aquarium is now an expanse of dirt.

Commissioners Joe Santo and Emily Wilson said Fowler had not been disingenuous, because he had made it plain that he intended to move the affordable housing offsite when the plans were approved in February. “Maybe you weren’t listening, but that’s what they said,” Santo said to Commissioner Nathan Sumpter, who said that wasn’t true.

The last-minute decision to move last week’s vote from the zoning committee to the plan review committee prompted some to speculate that the vote was rigged, as Republican votes dominated.

Questioned by Mushak, Santo said, “It should never have been on the zoning committee to begin with. It’s not a zoning change. It’s just reviewing the plan.”

“Everyone is going under the assumption that this is business as usual out there and it is not,” alternate James White, who did not have a vote, said in arguing for Spinnaker. “We are in very difficult conditions as far as any kind of development goes.”

“You’re talking about people’s lives,” Sumpter said. “You’re taking people who were going to be put in a central district and putting them in a different part of town. … You’re putting them in a whole different situation.”

Mushak, Sumpter, Rilling and Blank voted to deny the request as presented. Santo, White and Commissioner Jill Jacobsen voted to approve it.

“I want this project to happen, we all do,” Mushak said. “But we also don’t want to ignore the (city’s) master plan of development.”

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