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Conn. officials promote ‘First Responders’ Village’ as housing, recruitment solution

The Lyme Affordable Housing Commission unveiled a plan to buy property near the firehouse to create housing for volunteer firefighters


Lyme Fire Company/Facebook

By Elizabeth Regan
The Day

LYME, Conn. — The town’s Affordable Housing Commission has outlined its vision for a First Responders’ Village that could help retain a youthful crew of volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians who serve as the backbone of the town’s emergency services.

Commission Co-Chairwomen Carol House and Carleen Gerber on Monday laid out their $750,000 proposal for a 3.6-acre property just over a half mile from the Hamburg Road fire station. They said buying the property and making minimal upgrades to the house and a detached apartment there would allow as many as six volunteer firefighters to move in at affordable rents right away.

The selectmen voted unanimously to authorize First Selectman David Lahm to include the funding request in the proposed 2024-25 budget he will be presenting to the Board of Finance next week.

The budget requires approval by the Board of Finance and then by voters at the annual town meeting in May.

House attributed the commission’s sense of urgency to the recent death of the property owner, who approached them six months ago about possibly using the site for affordable housing.

She said the woman’s heirs are ready to sell.

“It’s going to go on the market soon, and if we don’t do something now, we will lose it,” she said.

The officials declined to disclose the address of the property out of fear of competition. But a parcel matching the exact property description and ownership situation is listed in the assessor’s database with an appraised value of $612,800.

The commission, in a written proposal, said the imminent threat as described by fire department and Lyme Ambulance Association leaders is this: Young recruits are being trained and gaining experience in Lyme, “but will soon move away to more economical locations.”

Gerber acknowledged the expense of the property purchase and rehabilitation would have to be borne by taxpayers and private donors because state and federal grant money is not available for projects that limit the availability of housing to one class of people.

“If the town wants to control who’s going to live there, the town’s got to step to the plate,” she said.

Lahm, who also serves on the Affordable Housing Commission, said he’s aware of seven members of the fire department or ambulance company who might be interested in the opportunity.

A way to start

Lyme Fire Department Chief John Evans on Tuesday said he’s supportive of the concept of housing dedicated to his volunteers. But he emphasized it’s too early for him to say much about the proposal.

He counted about 18 active volunteers responding to calls currently.

“We have a young membership and it’s challenging to find housing in the area to be able to retain them,” he said. “Quite a few of my members have to live just outside of town, so this is a step in the right direction.”

The proposal comes after the Planning and Zoning Commission last week declined to act on a change to its regulations requested by the Affordable Housing Commission that would allow certain types of multi-family housing as long as 100% is designated as affordable by state standards.

Zoning Enforcement Officer Ross Byrne on Tuesday said planning and zoning commissioners, who are in the process of updating the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, want to wait for the results of a survey expected to go out this spring to gauge residents’ appetite for changes to a landscape dominated by single-family homes on large lots.

The current conservation and development plan, approved in 2015, discourages multi-family developments.

But House, during her presentation to the selectmen, was confident residents now are amenable to the idea of modest multi-family options such as two-story duplexes or quadplexes set aside at rents younger people and older people can afford.

“There’s a lot that still has to be done with affordable housing,” she said. “But this is a way to start, and it’s a cheap way to start, and it’s a quick way to start, and it addresses our biggest problem.”

The First Responder Village proposal would not require any zoning changes because up to five unrelated people are allowed to live together in a “family” home under the definition laid out in the regulations.

House said there’s space on the land to build cottages or small, multi-family units if the Planning and Zoning Commission ultimately approves changes to the regulations.

Pay now or pay ... now

The co-chairwomen said addressing the issue of volunteerism through affordable housing is cheaper than hiring professionals to augment the ranks.

Gerber said paying firefighters would be an “enormous” expense.

Evans, the fire chief, said he would be providing the Affordable Housing Commission with details about the cost of adding paid firefighters to the department so they can use it when making their case to the finance board and taxpayers.

He declined to weigh in on the idea that housing reserved for volunteers would stave off the need to hire paid firefighters.

“I think we really have to see what the trends are,” he said. “It’d be nice for the town to be able to not have the additional expense, but at this point I would reserve comment.”

Selectmen John Kiker and Christina White expressed support for putting the funding request in the first selectman’s budget.

But White said a lot of details, including exactly how much rehabilitation the main house needs and how the rentals would be managed, need to be determined.

She also raised a question she warned would be on taxpayers’ minds: “The fact that we would be purchasing one property for six people: Is that a good allocation of funds for affordable housing?”

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