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November 1, 2013
by Roger Klepper
I have given much thought to the proposed Conifer affordable housing project. At first glance, it appears to be not unlike many other matters currently before the town, with a long list of positive and negative considerations. Much like Chappaqua Crossing, this can serve as ample fodder for lively debate among the town’s residents. But Conifer is in fact different.
The first that many heard of this project was way back in the early days of the Chappaqua Crossing debate, when Summit Greenfield was putting forth affordable housing as an important component of their development proposal. Perhaps the Conifer idea initially had some momentum, if for no other reason it was symbolic of alternatives to the affordable housing carrot being held out by SG.
Then Conifer took on a life of its own. But let’s briefly suspend reality, pretend that our town had been out front of the affordable housing issue, and did some planning. Such planning might include some broad parameters around any proposed affordable housing project. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I feel relatively strongly that those parameters would include something along the lines of the following provision:
Any affordable housing development would have to be of a character and nature that would be deemed suitable as residential housing for the broader population.
Putting aside for a moment whether the site is in fact suitable, this provision merits some further consideration, or more precisely, what would be implied by a violation of this provision merits further consideration. Simply put, it’s not something we do as a society. We draw a hard line when it comes to suitability. In general, be it food, drugs, whatever, we do not advocate lower suitability standards for the poor. Perhaps there are those that disagree, but I kind of put suitability into the “we hold these truths to be self evident” category. It’s a line that we just don’t cross. But to the extent we would deem the Conifer site as unsuitable for the broader population, that is exactly what we would be doing here. Our town’s grand effort to advance the cause of affordable housing would be a highly visible symbol of our collective willingness to alter the suitability standards for those less well off. Essentially, it would be an embarrassment.
Now as far as the general suitability of the site is concerned, my personal opinion is that any such proposal wouldn’t stand a chance at approval, and would likely get dismissed as some greedy developer’s ludicrous over reach. This site, literally sandwiched between a highway off ramp and active train tracks, would never be deemed suitable for residential housing. I would be happy to hear a contradictory opinion on this.
But once again, putting the question of suitability for this specific proposal aside, there is an important implication of my proposed suitability standard. It completely alters the debate regarding the Conifer project. Unless you disagree with my above provision, then the debate is no longer about affordable housing, it’s about suitability. As a consequence, many of those items on that list of positive considerations just fall away. It doesn’t matter if 1,000 families would move in there tomorrow. It doesn’t matter that the educational opportunities for some would be greatly enhanced. It doesn’t matter that our town would benefit from increased diversity. Those are of course very worthy benefits of affordable housing in general, and as a town we could devote whatever resources we choose to realizing those benefits.
But in the case of the debate surrounding the Conifer proposal, when taken in the context of suitability, they are all rendered irrelevant. There should be no compromises and no trade-offs. It doesn’t matter that no better alternatives have been put forth, leading to the inevitable rationalization of the site as not perfect, but the best we could do. It’s not a question of scale or number of units. The debate, at least initially, is no longer about a weighing of the positives against the negatives. It must be first be about suitability.
On the surface, perhaps it is tempting to view the Conifer proposal as a convenient way to address issues around affordable housing. But we can’t trade convenience for principals. If that leaves us with only inconvenient solutions, then so be it, even if that implies an adverse economic result for the town. We must only do this right. The gray area where the Conifer battle is being waged needs to be replaced by a bright line around suitability. It’s a line that we as a community should not cross.
Roger Klepper is an 11-year resident of New Castle.