Lawn signs are out and petitions are circulating, but a Wednesday night public hearing will give Stamford residents their one chance to speak on a matter that can reshape the city.
Residents are invited to address the Zoning Board about whether to opt out of a state law that will allow apartments to be added on to every single-family home in Connecticut.
Legislators in Hartford, including Caroline Simmons, who was a state representative before taking office as Stamford mayor in December, passed the law last year in an effort to increase the number of housing units in Connecticut, which has a severe shortage.
The law was contentious enough that an opt-out had to be included for it to pass the legislature. Each town must go through an opt-out process before Jan. 1, otherwise accessory apartments will be allowed anywhere there are single-family homes, as of right, without a public hearing or special permit.
Opponents of the mandate say Hartford legislators should not usurp municipal authorities with one-size-fits-all zoning, and that the law won’t much help state housing advocates meet their goals because it doesn’t require that rents for accessory apartments be affordable, and it cannot ensure that mostly white towns will become more diverse.
Towns in the area that have so far opted out of the accessory apartment mandate include Greenwich, Darien, Norwalk, Danbury, Bridgeport, Fairfield, Stratford, Westport, Weston, Wilton, Monroe, Redding and Milford.
In Stamford, which has produced most of the region’s affordable housing units over the last decade, residents have asked three mayoral administrations to better plan development and better enforce zoning regulations.
This month two Stamford neighborhood associations joined four others in asking the Zoning Board to opt out of the mandate for what state officials call accessory dwelling units, or ADUs.
Stamford officials should not “cede local zoning control to the state,” the board of the North Stamford Association wrote on its website.
“We see the following specific issues arising for North Stamford residents should ADUs proliferate,” the board members wrote.
“State law mandate for ADUs overrides existing zoning and eliminates local control; additional people equate to additional traffic, parking, noise, light, etc.; additional people living in zones designed for single-family residences will strain septic systems, water supply, and town services; unfortunately, correlations exist between increased population density and decline in quality of life, and the state regulations allow for a potential doubling of density in North Stamford.”
Members of the Hubbard Heights Association also wrote to the Zoning Board “to strongly request that the City of Stamford opt out of state control” of ADU regulations, according to a copy of the letter provided by the president, Dan Lombardi.
“Hubbard Heights is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Stamford, with properties dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s,” the letter reads. “The neighborhood comprises more than 300 single-family homes and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2016.”
Residents “take great pride in their homes and wish to protect the appearance and integrity that we’ve worked so hard to preserve over the years,” it reads.
Members of the Hubbard Heights Association cited the work of the Zoning Board, which decided to come up with its own set of regulations before voting whether to opt out. Stamford is one of a handful of municipalities in Connecticut that does not now allow accessory apartments in single-family homes.
The Zoning Board’s proposed regulations would require that the owner live in the single-family house or the accessory apartment. The state law does not include that stipulation.
Board regulations would cap apartment size at 800 square feet, which is less than the 1,000 square feet the state will allow.
And the Zoning Board would regulate other things the state will not:
- Apartments would be permitted only on lots that are 11,000 square feet or larger
- Occupancy would be limited to three people
- Apartments cannot be used for AirBnB or other short-term rentals
- There must be at least one off-street parking space
Hubbard Heights Association members agree with those regulations, but want the Zoning Board to add more, including:
- Require ADUs to be registered with the city annually, with proof that they meet health and fire codes
- Require that homeowners specify whether they are renting to family members, senior citizens, low-wage earners, etc., to ensure ADUs are filling a need and not just “rented at market value.”
- Require that an ADU preserve the appearance of the single-family home, including an architectural review in historic districts
- Prohibit parking on front lawns
No neighborhood group so far has come out in favor of the state mandate. The president of the Glenbrook Neighborhood Association said the board wanted to study the issue before taking a stance.
Lyle Fishell, president of the Cove Neighborhood Association, has said the city “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, has said Stamford streets and sidewalks are already difficult for persons with disabilities. Adding apartments will mean more garbage and recycling bins, and cars on sidewalks and curbs, Magalnick has said.
Mike Battinelli, a founder of the Stamford Neighborhood Coalition, said the law will not ease the affordable housing crisis because it prohibits municipalities from requiring that homeowners charge below-market-rate rents for accessory apartments.
Battinelli, a Republican, said he is running against incumbent Democrat Pat Billie Miller for the District 27 state Senate seat on Nov. 8 “on the issue of overdevelopment.”
Though Simmons supports accessory apartments, she has not said whether she supports opting out. In a letter to the Board of Representatives the mayor said ADUs are an “incremental but beneficial step toward addressing some of the urgent issues cities and towns across Connecticut face related to housing.”
In the run-up to Wednesday’s Zoning Board hearing, members of the Stamford Neighborhood Coalition are hanging cards on the handles of front doors and placing lawn signs around the city. “Save Stamford,” they read. “Opt out now.”
The opt-out process, as set by the state, requires a public hearing followed by a Zoning Board vote. If a majority of the board chooses to opt in, Stamford will be subject to the state law. If a majority votes to opt out, the matter goes to the 40 members of the Board of Representatives, who would have to ratify the opt-out with a ⅔ vote.
The Zoning Board’s virtual meeting is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 28. The public hearing is slated to begin at 7 p.m. Register in advance here.