STAMFORD – Accessory apartments are the talk of the town.
They are discussed online, at social events, at grocery stores and across backyard fences, Lynn Villency Cohen said.
“You would think that anything about zoning would be yawn-boring, but this is eliciting emotions,” Villency Cohen said. “It is absolutely on people’s minds.”
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For the first time, “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs, as state officials call them, are allowed in Stamford. The Zoning Board passed the regulations about two weeks ago.
“Four individuals on the Zoning Board who are appointed by the mayor, not elected, made a determination that affects most of the homeowners in Stamford,” Villency Cohen said. “People are taken aback by the fact that we have so little voice in this. It doesn’t feel like a democratic process.”
Many people don’t realize ADU regulations are on the books, she said.
“I’ve been following it, and I didn’t know,” Villency Cohen said. “People ask me about it and I say, ‘I have no idea what’s going on.’”
Some Stamford residents say ADUs are a disastrous idea because the city already has countless illegal apartments and little zoning enforcement. Streets in neighborhoods such as the Cove, East Side, West Side, Waterside, downtown, Glenbrook and others are crowded with cars and illegally parked commercial vehicles.
Cars are parked on lawns and sidewalks, and line streets on both sides, reducing them to a single traffic lane. Adding ADUs will make it worse, these residents say.
Others say allowing ADUs breaches a pact a resident has with the city when he or she purchases a home in an area zoned a certain way.
“I wanted a yard, a third of an acre. If I wanted more density I would live downtown,” said a man from the Springdale neighborhood. “I think that because the cost of living has gone up so much, people will put these apartments on their houses and charge $2,000, $2,500 a month. Then what happens when they move? Are they going to sell the house as a two-family?”
The man said he did not want his name publicized because he opposes ADUs and some of his neighbors are all for them.
“They want the extra money. They don’t care that this street is already packed with cars and I can’t pull out of my driveway,” he said. “But I don’t want to get into arguments with them.”
Other residents say they welcome ADUs because they will allow aging parents to live with their children, allow caregivers to live with aging homeowners, or allow college graduates to return home until they can get a career going.
“Many people feel passionate about it. It affects how they live,” Villency Cohen said. “That’s why I think we should elect the people on the Zoning Board the way we elect people for the Board of Education or Board of Finance or Board of Representatives.”
Most Connecticut towns do it that way, she said.
“I did a little digging. I asked someone from the state to give me a list of all the towns and which ones have zoning boards that are appointed, and which ones have zoning boards that are elected,” Villency Cohen said. “I counted 63 percent with elected zoning boards. Maybe it’s something Stamford should consider.”
This may be the time to do that.
Every 10 years a commission is appointed by the Board of Representatives to review the city Charter, Stamford’s governing document, and recommend changes that eventually go before the voters for approval.
The 19th Charter Revision Commission was appointed in February, and its draft report is due in June.
Attorney Michael Larobina, the former Stamford corporation counsel who chairs the commission’s Appointed Boards Committee, said it’s possible that the city could switch to electing Zoning Board members.
“There are other municipalities in Connecticut that have elected zoning boards, so it’s certainly something we can look at,” Larobina said. “If we decided to make that Charter change, the commission would have to make a recommendation to the Board of Representatives, and they would have to vote to put it on the ballot so the voters could decide.”
It’s a valid topic for the commission, said Co-Chair Steve Kolenberg.
“I know we will talk about it because it’s in the charge to the commission,” Kolenberg said. “We review everything in our charge, so it’s going to come up.”
Villency Cohen said it has been difficult to keep up with news of what city officials will do about a pending state law that would allow ADUs on all single-family lots, effectively turning them into two-family homes.
The law allows city officials to opt out of the ADU mandate if they follow a prescribed process by Jan. 1. Villency Cohen said she signed a petition, circulated by a neighborhood coalition, urging city officials to opt out, and helped gather more signatures.
But the Zoning Board still hasn’t opted out.
Board members decided that they first would create their own ADU regulations, because Stamford was one of a small number of Connecticut towns that did not allow ADUs.
Now that it’s done, the Zoning Board must hold a public hearing on opting out. The board then votes on whether to opt out. If they vote yes, the matter goes before the Board of Representatives, which must approve the opt-out with a ⅔ majority vote.
The ADU issue arose last year, when state legislators pushed to create more housing, which is in high demand in Connecticut. Legislators, including Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons, who was a member of the state House of Representatives last year, devised the law to help fill the gaping need for units.
The law was immediately contentious because it superseded local zoning regulations. To get it passed, state legislators included the opt-out, and gave local zoning boards the authority to initiate the process.
The state law would impose few restrictions, but the Stamford Zoning Board set several: only single-family homes on lots larger than 10,000 square feet, or .23 of an acre, may add an ADU; the ADU may be no larger than 800 square feet; the homeowner must live in either the house or the ADU; occupancy of the ADU is limited to three persons; at least one off-street parking space must be provided for the ADU tenant; ADUs cannot be used for short-term rentals, such as AirBnB.
Villency Cohen said she wishes she had known enough about the Zoning Board process to listen in on the deliberations or take part in any public hearings.
“It’s difficult to figure out when the meetings are. I feel like we as residents are ignorant about something very important to us,” she said. “The city needs to really involve the people who live here.”