With the deadline clock ticking, the Stamford Zoning Board has begun to consider whether to opt out of a state law that will make it legal to add an apartment to every single-family home, effectively turning them into two-family homes.
The mandate was an attempt by lawmakers in Hartford – including Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons, who was a state representative when the law was passed last year – to fill the demand for housing in Connecticut.
It could have significant consequences in Stamford, where neighborhoods are already congested with add-on apartments, many of them illegal.
The law allows municipalities to opt out of the mandate by Jan. 1, and many have done so, including Greenwich, Westport and Fairfield. The opt-out rules require a two-thirds vote from the zoning board and the town’s legislative body, in Stamford’s case the Board of Representatives.
The deadline is about four months away, which may seem like plenty of time, but governments move slowly. They operate on rules that dictate meeting dates, the drafting and passing of regulations, and the scheduling of public hearings and votes.
The Stamford Zoning Board just got started Monday night, when members voted to come up with their own regulations for accessory apartments and then decide whether to opt out of the state law.
Three nights later, the Board of Representatives’ Land Use Committee unanimously passed a resolution supporting the Zoning Board’s move.
“There is no time to dilly dally,” city Rep. Virgil de la Cruz said during the committee’s Thursday meeting.
The full Board of Representatives is slated to vote on the resolution Monday.
So the issue now is in play. The discussion among the five members of the Zoning Board offers insight into how things may go.
Board Chairman David Stein opened the discussion by laying out the situation with what the state calls accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. In Stamford, a single-family home cannot be divided into accessory apartments with separate entrances or kitchens.
“We now do not permit ADUs in Stamford, like many towns,” Stein said. “Some towns have opted out of the state law without passing their own ADU regulations, so they continue to not allow them. Other towns have passed their own ADU regulations in place of the state law.”
The question is whether Stamford wants to do that, Stein told his board.
“The Land Use Bureau staff and I believe that we should have our own ADU regulations which would better fit Stamford’s needs and would be narrower than what the state law has provided for,” he said. “Our own regulations would not allow as many ADUs and would be more tailored to the districts where it works better.”
Beyond that, Stein said, “there is a feeling among a number of the members of the Board of Representatives that they would prefer that we have a local law and not a state law.”
That makes sense, Zoning Board member Rosanne McManus said.
“I would assume most would feel that way,” McManus said.
Stein then asked for comments from other board members.
“If you remember that half of Stamford does not have city sewers, I have grave concerns regarding accessory units that are on septic systems,” member Roger Quick said in a reference to North Stamford, a geographically large but less populated area of the city north of the Merritt Parkway.
“It’s going to be a Pandora’s Box of problems,” said Quick who, according to city property records, lives in North Stamford. “I have no problem at all with sewered areas. In fact, I think it’s probably a good idea. It brings us up to date with, in fact, what exists out in the public south of the parkway.”
“Which is going to get us lots of comments, again, in that we never do anything that affects North Stamford,” McManus said. “I agree with you on the sewers, but because of many of those reasons, they do always get a pass.”
“That’s something we are going to have to wrestle with,” Stein said.
Some have said North Stamford is where accessory apartments should be allowed because that is where the space is – the lots are zoned for an acre or more.
When the Board of Representatives Land Use Committee first raised the opt-out issue in June, the vice chair, city Rep. Nina Sherwood, spoke up for the more densely populated neighborhoods. Sherwood said Stamford has “too many people in places that don’t have enough infrastructure, and it’s destroying quality of life.”
The city has “areas that are zoned single-family with houses that are two- and three-family, and people paving over their lawns” to create parking space, Sherwood said. “We are growing in a way that is not sustainable.”
Stamford residents have for years reported multiple tenants coming and going from single-family homes, unsafe living conditions, residential streets narrowed to one lane by cars parked on both sides, and other problems stemming from apartment add-ons.
Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing said during a recent meeting that the city needs a larger enforcement staff. He also addressed a misconception that the state law will legalize Stamford’s illegal apartments. Not true, Blessing said – the only way to legalize an apartment is to apply for a building permit and meet the requirements it sets.
Accessory apartments add to the housing supply, Blessing said, but they “are not the solution to the affordable housing crisis.” To his point, the state law does not require that single-family homeowners who add apartments charge affordable rents.
Stein said Blessing’s staff will draft accessory apartment regulations and bring them before the Zoning Board, probably in September.
“Once we approve the regulations, if that’s what we decide to do, we would vote on whether to opt out of the state law,” Stein said.
The Planning Board will weigh in, he said, and the public will be invited to speak at a hearing.
If the appointed members of the Zoning Board vote to opt out of the state mandate, the matter goes to the elected members of the Board of Representatives.
“The Board of Representatives does not vote to approve our ADU regulations,” Stein said. “All they have to do is vote to opt out of the state law.”
“They’ll look and say, ‘Which do we like better – what the Zoning Board approved or what the state approved,” McManus said.
“Yes,” Stein said.
When the Land Use Committee discussed its resolution three days after that Zoning Board discussion, committee member De la Cruz said he’s worried about the Jan. 1 deadline on such an important matter.
“I hope the Zoning Board moves with deliberate speed,” he said.