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A Battle Pitting Local versus State Control at the Heart of Legislation to Change Housing in Connecticut

March 13, 2021
By Cate Hewitt 

Local regulation of accessory apartments, mixed-use developments and multifamily housing could change dramatically if new legislation supported by the coalition Desegregate Connecticut is signed into law.

Bill 1024 is among a number of housing bills on the public hearing agenda of the Planning and Development Committee of the General Assembly on Monday at 10 a.m. 

The bill represents the platform of Desegregate Connecticut, an affiliate of the Regional Plan Association and self-described coalition of more than 60 organizations focused on an “overall goal of tackling segregation in land use laws.” 

Among some of its components, Bill 1024 would allow accessory dwelling units as-of-right in single-family zones. 

The bill focuses on transit-oriented development, requiring towns to choose 50 percent of an area within ½ mile of a railroad station for multi-family buildings of four or more units, with 10 percent affordable units in buildings of 10 or more apartments. A similar formula applies to “main street” housing, requiring towns to choose 50 percent of an area within ¼ mile of a main street for multi-family buildings of 2 to 4 units, with 10 percent affordable units in buildings of 10 or more apartments. 

The bill replaces “character” with “physical site characteristics and architectural context. According to Desegregate Connecticut, “character” is a term used in local zoning codes that historically had been “an avenue for discrimination against newcomers,” and was both vaguely defined and inconsistently applied.

Among other changes, the bill would eliminate parking mandates in TOD (transit-oriented development) and main street areas. It would also increase sewerage capacity for alternative on-site sewage treatment systems and community sewerage systems. Additionally, the bill requires six hours of annual training for zoning and planning commissioner, including fair housing and environmental issues. 

Supporters and opponents 
“Connecticut is one of the most segregated states in our country, and the most segregated in this entire region. We need to make sure that we identify ways of encouraging inclusiveness in our community. There are multiple different bills that are being proposed to look at opportunities and ways to address them and this bill could be one of them,” said State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, who is co-chair of the Housing Committee and a sponsor of Senate Bill 804, which predated Bill 1024. 

He said part of the purpose of the bill was to raise awareness of how some local zoning laws were designed using the practice of redlining, which restricted communities of color. 

“I do want people to have a conversation now about this. We have to raise our understanding because our education system has never informed the people why there is segregation in our state. Whether this bill will go forward or not is not clear. But it is worthy to start to have conversations at the community level about the status quo, and how we can address the status quo for the benefit of the entire state,” he said. 

Jayme Stevenson, first selectman of Darien, called the legislation an attempt by the state to dictate local zoning regulations. 

“It’s hard to talk just about [SB 1024] without talking about the myriad of other bills that are coming out of Planning and Development and even the Transportation Committee,” she said. “They’re all centered around the same concept of the state dictating zoning reform and imposing new regulations on the as-of-right development of multifamily housing.” 

Darien has two Metro North Stations, she said, and the concept that communities will have to allow a developer to build four or more units of multifamily housing within certain areas around train stations and main street corridors, with no input from the community is “really very problematic for us.” 

“The area in Darien that is considered our most historic places are all either within the half mile of the main Darien train station or within a quarter mile of our Main Street corridor,” she said. “So, I will be very eager to see how this legislation plays out because to date the people who live in that area are very restricted by what they can do to their personal properties to keep them preserved historically. If a developer can come in and build eight units of multifamily housing next door, I just don’t understand the wisdom of that quite frankly.”

“A win for these towns that they don’t realize”
A supporter of the bill is Eric Santini, a builder of multifamily homes and president of the Homebuilders and Remodelers Association of Connecticut, who said the organization will submit testimony endorsing the legislation at Monday’s hearing.  

Santini said the bill reflects changes in the marketplace, but regulations in the state’s 169 towns, each with individual zoning commissions, have lagged behind. He said traditional single family zoning with an acre or more has become outdated. 

“What I think has happened over the years is these towns have not updated their zoning to meet the changing demand for housing. People want a little more diversity in housing whether it’s that missing middle housing which would be townhomes or affordable housing accessory dwelling units,” he said. 

He said the bill can provide towns with “a little bit of direction” in how to develop new zoning regulations in a way that meets the housing demand that currently exists.  

“I really think it actually could be a win for these towns that they don’t realize. I think a lot of them are just thinking we’re going to get an out of state developer to come and put in 500 units and ruin our town and that’s really not how the bill is written,” he said. “It really promotes more transit-oriented development. The town would still have control over the density and how many units, so the town doesn’t lose a ton of control. It’s just a pathway to build a more diversified stock of housing.”

He said it was another way for towns to gain economic development and to support local businesses, but he added that building sites are relatively scarce in Connecticut. 

“There’s a very limited amount of land where you can actually build — I think a lot of people don’t realize that. You need the infrastructure, you need sewer, you need public water, so it’s not like you can build a multi-family anywhere in a town. It’s not the case in the vast majority of any town in Connecticut,” he said. 

Accessory dwelling units and affordability
In testimony she will submit on Monday, Maryam Elahi, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, a philanthropic foundation based in New London, said that legalizing accessory dwelling units, known as ADUs, is a proven method on meeting public needs for housing.

“While ADUs are allowed in much of Eastern Connecticut, many towns require public hearings. These strict requirements make it very difficult for Eastern Connecticut residents to build ADUs,” she wrote. “We need to capitalize on the significant increase in housing demand within Eastern Connecticut by allowing homeowners to reap the benefits of ADUs.”

Elahi said that more ADUs would benefit young people, seniors and people with disabilities who need these types of inclusive housing to live in the communities of eastern Connecticut. 

“Additionally, because ADUs are nestled within single family homes, they are a good option for creating accessible housing unobtrusively in residential neighborhoods,” she said. 

Stevenson, who serves as the first vice president of Connecticut Council of Municipalities, said the time had come to allow certain areas of municipalities the ability to approve accessory dwelling units, but she was in favor of putting limitations on the legislation. 

“But I don’t believe that every town should have to approve accessory dwelling units in every zone,” said Stevenson. “For example, in Darien, it may be very problematic to allow accessory dwelling units in areas of already very dense development.”

Stevenson said municipalities should be able to regulate and approve the details of accessory dwelling units, including the size and appearance.

“For example, I think [1024] does not allow for a zoning commission to require that an accessory dwelling unit have consistent architecture to the primary residence. That’s an aesthetic consideration which, truly, I believe should be up to the purview of individual municipalities,” she said. 

Bill 1024 does not guarantee the affordability of accessory dwelling units and does not require deed restrictions or covenants on the property. 

“I understand that because there’s probably no single family home owner that would agree to do deed-restricting,” Stevenson said. 

Fred Camillo, first selectman of Greenwich, said that 10 years ago as a state representative he submitted a bill to allow accessory dwelling units to be counted toward the state’s 10 percent mandate for affordable housing. The bill was not passed but he said he is still in favor of the idea. 

“That would help an elderly couple or a couple that’s house-rich and income-poor to stay in their homes. It would allow first or second or third year teachers and firemen and public works workers and cops to live in towns that they’re working in until they save up enough money to live in a bigger place,” he said. 

He said the problem with adding multifamily housing with a percentage of affordable units was that the total number of units continues to increase.

“You’re trying to get 10% of a total number that keeps growing. It’s like a dog chasing its tail — you’re never going to get it. But we already have these houses that would be great for accessory apartments. I’m all on board with that part of that goal,” he said. 

Local versus state control
According to Camillo, the Greenwich Housing Authority has spent $27 million in the last five years on housing units, an example of successful local efforts that Bill 1024 would interrupt. 

“This bill does not promote affordable housing, nor does it address social equity. Those worthy goals are best accomplished through local action. Local autonomy is a time tested and cherished aspect of our state, and a one-size or Hartford-driven mandate or mandates is a recipe to undo all that’s been built up in positive ways over decades throughout Connecticut,” he said. 

Stevenson said the leaders behind the bill live in large urban centers and do not understand the consequences of bill 1024 “in any way shape or form.”

“I’m perplexed by that. Why would their mission be to so dramatically change the look and feel and the operations of small towns in which they don’t live,” she said. “I understand the things that are behind it — the conversations around racial equity, desegregation  — but truthfully there’s nothing in these pieces of legislation that ensure that the communities will become less segregated nor more affordable.”

Anwar said that a bill like 1024 will initiate important conversations in privileged communities about social equity.  

“So that’s where we’ll start with the conversation. If we can change the hearts and the minds and the wisdom and people, then this bill will pass and short of doing that, this bill will not pass,” he said.



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