Connecticut’s 169 towns are diverse, from sleepy hamlets in the hills of Litchfield County to Stamford, a fast-paced suburb of New York City.
Regardless, towns have for months been sending Hartford the same message – keep your nose out of our business.
They mean zoning business.
On Thursday night in Stamford, for instance, the Board of Representatives has on its agenda a discussion of recent legislation “related to state control of local zoning.”
For two sessions the state Legislature has pushed measures to increase the number of affordable housing units in Connecticut, which has a significant shortage.
But Hartford is doing it by preempting municipal zoning laws, without understanding the ramifications unique to each town, local leaders say.
One law legalizes accessory apartments in all single-family houses in Connecticut. In Stamford, there is an uncounted number of accessory apartments, many of them illegal, that residents have long said create a congestion that diminishes quality of life.
City Rep. Bradley Bewkes, chairman of the Stamford Board of Representatives’ Land Use Committee, put the item on the agenda. Bewkes said he has questions about an exemption in the law.
It says municipalities may opt out of permitting accessory apartments with a two-thirds vote from the local zoning board and legislative body. The deadline for opting out is Jan. 1.
“We want to understand what action Stamford would have to take if we want to opt out,” said Bewkes, a Republican. “Does it have to start with the Zoning Board, and then it comes to the Board of Representatives? If the Zoning Board doesn’t want to do anything, can representatives still do something?”
City Rep. Nina Sherwood, a Democrat and vice chair of the Land Use Committee, said a law allowing accessory apartments in all single-family houses would not be good for Stamford.
“Stamford long ago opened up its zoning regulations – to the point where we have too many people in places that don’t have enough infrastructure, and it’s destroying quality of life for people who live there,” Sherwood said. “I understand that the state wants to open up towns like Darien and Greenwich and New Canaan, but Stamford needs more control over zoning, not less.”
Stamford has problems the state cannot solve, Sherwood said. Only the city can do it, she said.
“As we gentrify areas of the city, we increase the demand for housing, so people are incentivized to put in illegal apartments. One person does it then the next person sees it and does it. Now we have areas that are zoned single-family with houses that are two- and three-family, and people paving over their lawns,” Sherwood said. “The problem starts at the Zoning Board. We need leadership that will value the people we have and make sure they have what they need before we continue to expand. We are growing in a way that is not sustainable.”
Bewkes said there are other questions for Thursday’s meeting, which can be viewed at 7:30 p.m. at boardofreps.org.
In legislative sessions the state has passed or proposed – and likely will propose again – measures that would allow blanket high-density development, without local say-so, Bewkes said.
“I want it out there for the public to know what’s been proposed, what passed, what may be coming, and who the people are who are doing it,” he said. “We have elections this year, so it’s possible we will have a new slate of state representatives and senators, and people should know where they stand on these issues.”
He hopes to learn other things from the discussion, Bewkes said.
“In Stamford people are trying to fit more people in smaller spaces – maybe they want to keep their families together, I don’t know. But the city is not able to regulate or enforce these accessory apartments,” he said. “I want a wholesome discussion of the pros and cons, and include different viewpoints.”
Bewkes said he plans to invite Mayor Caroline Simmons, a Democrat who voted for the statewide legalization of accessory apartments last year, when she was a state representative. So far the Land Use Committee agenda lists members of Simmons’ administration as speakers.
For a different viewpoint, Bewkes invited state Rep. Kim Fiorello, a Greenwich Republican who represents parts of Stamford. Fiorello has opposed affordable housing mandates, saying they usurp the authority of local zoning commissions.
Fiorello is a founding member of CT169Strong, a group that advocates for local control of zoning matters, said Alexis Harrison of Fairfield, another member.
Harrison, who sits on the Town Plan and Zoning Commission, said Fairfield has voted to opt out of the state law allowing accessory apartments in all single-family houses.
“We had already expanded our own regulations [for accessory apartments] with our Affordable Housing Commission,” Harrison said. “We don’t need the state to tell us what to do. We feel it’s best for the local commission to do that work. Hartford doesn’t know what Fairfield’s infrastructure looks like.”
There’s no question that Connecticut needs more affordable housing, Harrison said. But members of CT160Strong think Hartford is listening only to affordable housing advocates, and not other stakeholders.
“To have good policy change, you need everyone at the table, not just housing advocates,” Harrison said. “You need zoning experts, environmentalists, and regular people. We feel like we’re not part of the conversation.”