Few See ‘Win,’ as House Approves Less Far-Reaching Housing Law

HARTFORD — The House approved an affordable housing bill on Thursday night that cut back on more far-reaching provisions proposed in a number of housing bills previously debated this session — a compromise that satisfied neither housing advocates looking for strong statewide measures nor opponents of state-mandated zoning.  

H.B. 6107, as amended, passed with 84 yay votes, 59 nays and 8 members not voting. 

State Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield, who is co-chair of the Planning and Development Committee, presented the bill, which she said reorganizes the Zoning Enabling Act and amends the state land use statute “to provide greater clarity and tools for local planning and zoning boards.”

“[It] empowers towns and cities to facilitate economic growth, ensuring inclusive communities and adds energy and environmental protections to their zoning codes. It requires towns to submit their affordable housing plans to OPM by June of 2022.”

“[It] empowers towns and cities to facilitate economic growth, ensuring inclusive communities and adds energy and environmental protections to their zoning codes. It requires towns to submit their affordable housing plans to OPM by June of 2022″ — State Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield

The bill allows municipalities to approve accessory apartments as of right, except that towns may opt-out of the provision with a ⅔ vote of their Board of Selectmen or legislative board.

Under the as of right provision, anyone submitting an application to build an accessory apartment will not be required to go through a public hearing — similar to the process for single family homes in most towns — but will be required to comply with local building codes.

“I think it’s important to note that as of right does require that folks who are seeking a permit are complying with the locally determined regulations that have been voted on through a public hearing process, and it then would allow someone who does ‘come to the counter’ so to speak, to assure that they were checking those boxes,” said McCarthy Vahey.

“One of the biggest concerns we heard from the public and the hundreds of people who testified, was the perceived and real feeling that public input was being potentially lost in this process” — State Rep. Joe Zullo, R-East Haven

A prior bill would have allowed multifamily housing within a certain distance of transit stations and main streets as of right, but that provision was stripped from this bill.  

State Rep. Joe Zullo, R-East Haven, said that removing public hearings from the process for accessory apartments could result in negative impacts for neighbors, depending on the location and setback of the dwelling. 

“One of the biggest concerns we heard from the public and the hundreds of people who testified, was the perceived and real feeling that public input was being potentially lost in this process,” he said. 

Zullo told legislators that under the statute, every single family home, as long as it complied with regulations, would be eligible to be converted to the equivalent of a two-family house, with no requirement for one of the units to be owner-occupied. 

“This recognizes that fast track as-of-right approvals don’t provide towns or the public with the opportunity to fully consider how developments may impact water resources, traffic safety, parking issues, wastewater capacity, and other public health and safety issues” — Betsy Gara, executive director, COST

“No new parking, no separate utilities, and you can create a two family where otherwise you really wouldn’t be allowed to do it. This raises a host of density concerns, parking concerns… You’re allowing every neighborhood in every town across the state to become multifamily overnight, which is concerning.” 

Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns (COST) said that the as of right provision for accessory apartments could lead to more statewide zoning regulations.  

“Many of our small towns continue to be concerned… that by requiring towns to allow accessory apartments as of right, the bill opens the door for top-down, one-size-fits-all zoning mandates,” said Gara in an email. “This recognizes that fast track as-of-right approvals don’t provide towns or the public with the opportunity to fully consider how developments may impact water resources, traffic safety, parking issues, wastewater capacity, and other public health and safety issues.” 

The statute removes the word “character” and replaces it with “physical site characteristics,” a substitution that Zullo said needed examination

“Character — certainly heard it during all of the public hearings. It’s what makes so many of our communities across the state so unique, so special. When we’re substituting physical site characteristics, one of the things that we want to make sure that we do is that we preserve that unique quality of each community that they’ve worked so hard to build, so that they can retain it.”

Zullo also questioned language in the statute that prohibits towns from adopting regulations for mobile homes that are substantially different from single family homes. He said mobile home parks typically contain a higher density of dwellings than an area with single family homes, as well as different types of energy utilities and traffic patterns. 

The bill contains a new requirement for training and certification for zoning enforcement officers but does not clarify the penalty for a failure to comply, nor whether a town could be liable in court for decisions made by an uncertified zoning officer. 

Under the statute, zoning commissioners will also be required to take four hours of training, including one hour focusing on affordable housing, but McCarthy Vahey said that if a zoning commissioner does not do the training, he or she will still be allowed to participate on the board. 

“I want to make it clear, while this might be a watered down version, this is a huge boot in the door for state control over our towns that would eliminate that uniqueness that makes Connecticut so special. So I do want to thank the people of Connecticut who have stood up and said no. I want to thank the committee leadership who also heard those voices and have brought forth something very different. But what has been brought forth, I find still unacceptable and I won’t be supporting, but it does show the importance of getting the word out and letting the people share their voice” –State Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield

The bill prohibits towns from adopting regulations that would discontinue legal nonconforming uses, a provision that was included in prior housing bills. 

Another provision allows towns to collect fees to pay for expert or technical analysis in land use projects when needed by zoning, planning, or  inland wetlands commissions, except for 8-30g projects or residential buildings that contain four or more dwelling units.

State Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, said that while the bill had evolved from prior proposals, she was still against the principle of state control of zoning. 

“I want to make it clear, while this might be a watered down version, this is a huge boot in the door for state control over our towns that would eliminate that uniqueness that makes Connecticut so special. So I do want to thank the people of Connecticut who have stood up and said no. I want to thank the committee leadership who also heard those voices and have brought forth something very different. But what has been brought forth, I find still unacceptable and I won’t be supporting, but it does show the importance of getting the word out and letting the people share their voice.”

“[The bill] is not where I would like it to be. It is not where a lot of my colleagues would like it to be. Quite frankly it’s not where civil rights advocates, housing advocates, land use advocates, want it to be. But it is moving us in the right direction by balancing the goals of updating our zoning and land use statutes while recognizing the premium that I think we all place on local control and local decision making” — State Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford

State Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said that the bill was a step aimed at addressing “the legacy of housing policy that results in divisions in our society that have kept us from reaching our collective potential.” 

“[The bill] is not where I would like it to be. It is not where a lot of my colleagues would like it to be. Quite frankly it’s not where civil rights advocates, housing advocates, land use advocates, want it to be. But it is moving us in the right direction by balancing the goals of updating our zoning and land use statutes while recognizing the premium that I think we all place on local control and local decision making.”

Rojas said that “bottom-up” approach has led to the structure Connecticut has today, “which is a segregated state.” 

“The road to today has not been easy. It’s been bumpy, it’s been emotional. But we are here. And the bill that we are about to vote on is a positive for the future of the state of Connecticut, but it is by no means the last time that we will debate housing and zoning policy in this chamber, there is much more work to be done work that is in the best interest of all Connecticut residents in the moral standing of our state.”

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