STAMFORD – Last year state lawmakers, in heated debates, tackled the shortage and exorbitant cost of housing in Connecticut by passing a number of laws.
One of the most controversial had to be watered down so it would pass.
So it came with an opt-out.
But the opt-out has a deadline, and now Stamford is up against it.
The state law, set to take effect in January, will supersede local zoning regulations and legalize accessory apartments in all single-family homes. The apartments can be attached to the house or garage, or they can be freestanding in the yard.
The law will, in effect, allow just about any single-family home to become a two-family.
Stamford and a handful of other cities do not allow such apartments, which the state calls accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. One of the reasons is that cities in Connecticut tend to have lots of multi-family homes. They are far less common in towns.
But the state law will apply to all – unless local zoning boards and legislative bodies opt out by Jan. 1.
So far, about half the municipalities in Fairfield County – and the state – have opted out or are considering it, regional planning organizations report.
The law lays out a multi-step process for opting out. In Stamford, it starts with the five appointed members of the Zoning Board.
If, after a public hearing, three members vote to opt in, Stamford will be subject to the state law, which permits construction of accessory apartments without a special permit or public hearing; requires only one parking space per apartment; and allows apartments up to 1,000 square feet or 30 percent of the floor area of the primary home, whichever is less.
If Zoning Board members vote to opt out, the matter goes to the 40 elected members of the Board of Representatives, who would have to ratify the opt-out with a ⅔ vote.
In July, however, the Zoning Board added a step. Members decided to come up with their own regulations first, then decide whether to opt out.
The Board of Representatives quickly passed a resolution supporting the move.
The city’s Land Use Bureau spent August crafting regulations, and now there is a draft.
According to the draft, the Zoning Board, unlike the state, would require that the property owner live in the house or the accessory apartment.
The apartment size would be capped at 800 square feet, smaller than the 1,000 square feet the state will allow.
The Zoning Board would regulate other things the state will not:
- Apartments would be permitted only on lots with an area of at least 11,000 square feet
- Occupancy would be limited to three people
- Apartments cannot be used for short-term rentals, such as AirBnB
- The landlord must provide at least one off-street parking space, other than space used by occupants of the primary home
“The next step … is a public hearing scheduled for September 28,” Ralph Blessing, chief of the city’s Land Use Bureau, said Thursday.
The draft was written by bureau staff with input from certain members of the Board of Representatives, Blessing said.
City representatives do not have to approve the Zoning Board’s regulations – they may only ratify the opt-out.
Some Zoning Board members have said they think few elected officials would favor state control over local control. Members of the Planning Board, who were asked to weigh in earlier this month, advised Zoning Board members to opt out if they see that they can’t agree on regulations before the Jan. 1 deadline, signaling they think maintaining local control should be the priority.
But not all agree. Some residents who have spoken at public meetings said Stamford should not restrict accessory apartments because the need for housing is severe. Mayor Caroline Simmons, who has been in office since December, voted for the state mandate last year while she was still a state representative.
Community leaders expressed support for keeping the state out of city zoning matters.
Lyle Fishell, president of the Cove Neighborhood Association, said, “Opt out now.”
“We cannot even police the existing illegal housing problems in the neighborhoods, and on-street parking is already an issue,” Fishell said. “Maybe we should work on resolving our own violations before enacting new zoning regulations.”
Phil Magalnick, past president of the Springdale Neighborhood Association and chairman of the Stamford Americans with Disabilities Act Advisory Council, said, “We already have so many illegal apartments.”
“I look at this as a disabled person,” said Magalnick, who is blind. “The neighborhoods have issues with congestion, traffic, parking and walkability. As it is, the sidewalks are not accessible. Now there will be more garbage cans on the sidewalks, more recycling bins. There are many streets with no sidewalks and we have to walk along the curb. Where will the people who live in these apartments park but on the streets? This will make it all harder.”
Mike Battinelli, a founder of the Stamford Neighborhood Coalition, said the state mandate is “outrageous.” He cited a provision in the law that prohibits municipalities from requiring that homeowners charge below-market-rate rents for their accessory apartments.
“This has nothing to do with affordable housing, because if someone is going to add an apartment to their house, they are not going to charge low rent. They are going to get the most they can for it,” Battinelli said. “Neighborhoods are already so congested. I have watched the houses on my street in Glenbrook go from mostly one-family to two-family, and many of the additions are not legal.”
The coalition is working to gather signatures on a petition “so we can hand it to the mayor and say, ‘This is what we DON’T want,’” Battinelli said.
Dave Avery, president of the Strawberry Hill Neighborhood Association, said city officials should not “accept whatever the state is trying to make the city do.”
“The city should have a say in how we handle this process. I’m surprised this law even got through the state,” Avery said. “It sounds dangerous that some city representatives would not support local control.”
It’s a reference to the Board of Representatives’ July vote on the resolution supporting the Zoning Board’s plan to come up with its own regulations. Ten city representatives voted against the resolution.
One was city Rep. Eric Morson, the board’s deputy majority leader.
“I didn’t feel that the tenor of that resolution appropriately fit our place in the process, so I voted against the tone of the resolution but not against its content,” Morson said. “I am absolutely in favor of opting out. My neighborhood is very firm. Many sought me out with a level of urgency I haven’t seen on other matters, to make sure I vote to opt out.”
It’s important to require that the property owner occupy either the primary home or the accessory apartment, Morson said. But he has concerns.
“What if the home is owned by a corporation? How do we fulfill the requirement of owner occupancy? Should we disallow ADUs on such properties?” Morson said. “These are questions we have to address.”
City Rep. Jonathan Jacobson also voted against the resolution. He wanted to avoid opting out of the state mandate without first putting city regulations in place and “then having no opportunity to allow ADUs,” Jacobson said.
“My preference is to have our own regulations – we know what’s best for our municipality,” Jacobson said. “But if I had to choose between statewide regulations and nothing, at this point I would be inclined to support statewide regulations. The state, and the city in particular, are suffering from the lack of affordable housing, the increasing cost of rent, and the lack of housing inventory.”
City Rep. Nina Sherwood, majority leader of the board, said she’s worried about missing the deadline.
“I certainly want to opt out. I think it’s unfortunate, though, to rush through the regulations,” Sherwood said. “But if this is the only way the Zoning Board is willing to do this, I’m happy it’s this rather than nothing.”