Debating Changes to Connecticut’s Housing and Zoning Laws

On Thursday night, the State Senate approved changes Connecticut’s housing and zoning laws after a lengthy debate, for and against the legislation. Below are a series of voices capturing the spirit of that debate.

State Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, argued Connecticut is held back in many ways because of its municipal structure, which dates back to the 17th century, and what he called the state’s “hyper-localism.” 

“No one laying out Connecticut today would devise 169 separate municipalities without some sort of organizing or regional construct to help them engage in cooperation,” he said. 

Looney said that because the state has no county structures and no services provided at an intermediary level between the state and municipalities, it cannot take advantage of more cost effective economies of scale. 

“They choose not to [combine with other towns] because of the absolute death grip fixation on home rule of local control, which people take pride in. But, it’s actually something that is holding back the development of the state in so many areas, especially in terms of economic development, especially where new businesses come in and look at an area, not in terms of the municipal fiefdoms, but in terms of the economic health and potential of an entire region.” 

Looney said the new commission proposed in S.B. 6107 can provide guidance on model zoning and development, affordable housing, wastewater management and transportation systems, which can be critically important for statewide planning. 

“This bill is a modest step toward beginning to address [all of these problems]. It’s not a revolutionary bill by any means but it is an important bill, an incremental bill, that does move us in a positive direction. It indicates that Connecticut does recognize its problems and challenges, and is committed to move responsibly, although incrementally, in the right direction.” 

State Sen. Henri Martin R-Bristol, questioned the cost of building affordable housing, which he called “extreme.” He said a nonprofit proposed taking over an ailing project in Bristol and pitched nine units for $2.7 million, or $300,000 per apartment. 

“The cost of what was proposed floored me… It is good that we are trying to achieve some type of affordability in the state. However, I really believe that if you really want to make an impact on the affordability of housing here in the state of Connecticut, we need to look within ourselves here and what we are doing with the Department of Housing — look at the obstacles or what let’s look at what’s driving the costs of the financing of those projects if you really want to make an impact on affordability.”

State Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, said that diverse housing options were essential for retaining young people for workforce development and for providing options to seniors who want to downsize and continue to live in their communities. 

“We visit businesses in our district and they tell us the same thing time and time again, they can’t find young, talented tech savvy workers to fill these 21st century jobs. One of the reasons [for that is] it’s too hard for young people to find an [affordable] place to live in Connecticut.” 

Haskell said that the legislation does not undermine local control or infringe on local rights, but, for example, expands town planning and zoning commissions to adopt “more stringent, more aggressive regulations when it comes to sustainable water and energy systems to protect our planet to protect our clean air and clean water.”

“It replaces vague terms like town character, which might mean something different to every single one of us and throughout our history have been applied unevenly based on the color of people’s skin or the community which they come from or the income that they happen to receive, and instead, empowers local planning and zoning commissioners to decide what exactly town character means tie it to physical characteristics, things like height and setback and density and architectural context. Let’s make sure that the rules apply equally to everybody.”

Haskell said the bill does not give Hartford or any state agency the power to overrule local planning and zoning commissions, nor does it give developers the right to build “whatever they want, wherever they want.” He said the bill does not include any provisions that would meaningfully change the look of a town’s main streets, downtown or train stations. 

‘It’s a small step to create just a little bit more housing opportunities, because if we’re going to continue coming to Hartford to talk about the brain drain, if we’re going to continue coming to Hartford to talk about how seniors can’t afford to downsize in this community … We can’t talk about those issues without addressing housing, and this bill isn’t going to solve all of those problems but it brings us just one step closer.”

Alexis Harrison, who is a member of CT169Strong, a group advocating for local control of zoning issues, said the Senate Democrats voted on a party line vote to approve S.B. 6107. 

In an May 28 email to CT Examiner, she encouraged citizens to listen to Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly’s comments “that accurately reflect the real issue facing CT and the reason for the lack of affordability.” 

“This bill will not create needed affordability or equity and the working group, which lacks adequate representation of municipal leaders from various parts of the state from municipalities of differing sizes, is not specifically tasked with addressing the shortcomings of 8-30g,” she wrote. 

She said her group has worked to shed light on a number of zoning bills that “create dense housing in our suburbs, enrich landowners and builders and don’t address the real problem in Connecticut — a lack of opportunity and jobs for its residents which is the only sustainable way to improve affordability.”

“CT169Strong believes in Connecticut’s unique and independent 169 communities who are working diligently to create diversity in our housing stock, and they have evidenced their good faith efforts to create affordable housing under 8-30g, Connecticut’s affordable housing law,” she wrote. 

Sara Bronin, founder and lead organizer of DesegregateCT, the group that proposed S.B. 1024, an affordable housing and zoning bill that helped stir debate statewide and contained some of the provisions adopted in S.B. 6107, said her group “couldn’t be more grateful for the support of an overwhelming majority of legislators from all over the state.

“Our seventy coalition member organizations and thousands of supporters who have advocated for this bill are looking forward to seeing Governor Lamont sign it, and we are united in the hope that communities across the state will be one step closer to the Connecticut we all deserve.” 

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