They have since filed three more 8-30g applications, all for senior housing. Some call the Stefanonis extortionists; a local lawyer who went to Hartford to rail against the affordable-housing law before a legislative panel took it a step further and, without mentioning any names, declared that, in Darien, 8-30g had become a tool for “economic terrorism.”
Economic terrorism that’s been applied to the white middle classes for decades.
The Stefanonis were uniquely suited for this fight. They lived like paupers in a sparsely furnished house, managed to do their own legal work, and avoided debt. (The only status that has ever seemed to concern them is the athletic standing of their children.) And they were extraordinarily persistent. In short, they had staying power, so much so that the battle over 77 Nearwater dragged on for a full two years. Chris had abandoned the notion of a job on Wall Street; he focused all his attention on the housing fight. When the dust finally cleared, the condo project was off the table— but the Stefanonis were millionaires. An anonymous donor or donors had effectively bought them out. Delivered in the form of a grant from the New York Community Trust to the Darien Land Trust, the money enabled the land trust to acquire the property. The Stefanonis’ price: $4.2 million.
Chris says that he and Peggy took the deal because it beat the alternative—opponents of their proposed affordable-housing project appeared ready and willing to keep the Stefanonis’ development plan tied up in the courts for years. The price reflected the property’s new development value—and, for the anonymous donor(s) perhaps, the cost of future certainty. Today, 77 Nearwater is a lovely wildflower meadow.
Was this the Stefanonis’ plan all along? Was their 8-30g application a ruse, a high-stakes game of chicken? Many people in Darien thought so, especially after the couple began to buy up more property in town. They have since filed three more 8-30g applications, all for senior housing. Some call the Stefanonis extortionists; a local lawyer who went to Hartford to rail against the affordable-housing law before a legislative panel took it a step further and, without mentioning any names, declared that, in Darien, 8-30g had become a tool for “economic terrorism.”
Chris acknowledges that his motives for pursuing affordable housing are not pure—“I’m not altruistic.” But he doesn’t see himself as any worse than the rest of the diehard capitalists who live in town—and perhaps a little better. “I’m not like the guys on Wall Street who are gambling with other people’s money,” he says. He and Peggy simply found a niche: Darien’s long inaction on affordable housing. And if financial gain is one aim, they also firmly believe that Darien is long overdue for the economic and racial diversity such housing could bring.
In effect, they have become Darien’s worst nightmare: canny crusaders who are persistent, vocal, and unconcerned with status. They are opportunists waving the banner of social justice, attention-getters in a town that prefers to conduct business unnoticed.
They are not what the drafters of 8-30g had in mind, and rare is the developer who could or would exist as the Stefanonis do: in a constant state of legal warfare. As Chris himself says, “You gotta be a little bit nuts to do this.” But if the Stefanonis are extreme, their unflagging presence has also forced Darien to have the necessary conversation it did not want to have. And, in this way, 8-30g has served its purpose. Darien has had to confront the reality that if the town does not plan for and generate more affordable housing on its own terms, then the Stefanonis might do it for them.