NORWALK – Common Council members voted to opt out of a state law regulating accessory apartments Wednesday night, but denounced recently-changed city regulations that created increased requirements for homeowners.
“I just view it as the lesser of two evils,” said council member Bryan Meek.
Citing a need for flexibility and local control, and with less than a month until the Jan. 1 deadline, members opted out of Public Act 21-29 – a law allowing all single-family homes to create accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, using state-mandated guidelines.
The Planning and Zoning Commission opted out on June 15, with the final decision left to the Common Council by state law.
But five days prior to the council vote, the Planning and Zoning Commission made changes to the city’s 40-year-old rules, requiring a site plan review for detached ADUs. Based on current review instructions, residents must pay $410 in application fees, alert nearby neighbors of potential construction, finance at least three legal notices in a local newspaper and in certain cases – subject to committee decision – participate in a public hearing.
Reached by phone, council member Josh Goldstein told CT Examiner that in addition to other zoning hurdles, the site plan review would serve as a deterrent to building detached ADUs.
“You’d have to get it approved by a zoning officer in order to begin building in the first place. Site plan review adds the extra set of steps which includes, most notably, neighbor notification,” Goldstein said. “And when you add the cumulative effect of all those steps, it can cause many people’s eyes to glaze over and just be like, ‘I don’t want to do this.’”
Goldstein said the extra steps required in the application process would, in effect, restrict expansion of available housing – a growing necessity in Norwalk. While ADUs were not the answer to the problem, he said, most apartment complexes were at capacity, and the city was experiencing a considerable rental pricing increase.
“ADUs are a small piece of that puzzle, but they’re an important piece because we want to be able to be creative and innovative in responsibly developing our housing stock,” Goldstein said. “We want ADUs to be a part of the solution, so that’s why we opted out last night. And that’s why a number of us hope that the Planning and Zoning Commission will revisit and ultimately, I think, change its decision to include a site plan review requirement.”
The Common Council opted out of the state law in a 12 to 2 vote. Member Nora Niedzielski-Eichner, one of the two opponents, said that while there were obvious flaws in the state statute, she thought it was better for Norwalk than current, restrictive regulations.
“It is better for us to have a less restrictive approach,” Niedzielski-Eichner said. “It is better for us to support our community in building housing, particularly the opportunity to build housing outside our urban core.”
Niedzielski-Eichner said ADUs could provide affordable housing for residents who want to move to rural Norwalk neighborhoods, and supplemental income for the homeowners. She said constituents longed to stay in the community, but were being driven out by costs.
While council members did not support the application process for detached accessory apartments, Niedzielski-Eichner said the vast majority of ADUs would be attached to main dwellings and built in Norwalk’s urban areas. Under current municipal regulations, attached ADUs were subject to approval by the zoning enforcement officer – no site plan review required – which most members supported.
“I want to stress that under both the state statute and the P&Z regulations as currently put forward, we are really embracing attached ADUs. They are not subject to site plan review under the current regulations,” Niedzielski-Eichner said. “I very much hope that nothing will be subject to site plan review when this regulation finally shakes out to its final form.”
According to the minutes of the December Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, member Louis Schulman told commissioners that regulations could be changed if they thought the site plan provision discouraged ADU construction. But members ultimately approved the regulation amendments – recommended by the Economic and Community Development Committee – as they were less restrictive than state laws and provided affordability, which could attract new residents.
At the Common Council meeting, member Diana Revolus urged members to keep the affordability component of accessory apartments in mind moving forward. She said what the city considered affordable housing may not be affordable for all residents.
“If they’re too expensive, they’re too expensive,” Revolus said. “Build them or not. They’re too expensive.”
Member Tom Livingston said Revolus brought up a very important point. Norwalk was doing more than most communities to address affordability, he said, but ADUs would not create housing that was affordable.
“These detached units are not going to be what most people really need,” Livingston said. “When you think about affordable housing, it’s not going to be that. So we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it will be.”
Under current regulations, detached accessory apartments could not exceed 700 square feet, and attached units could not exceed 1,000 square feet. But Goldstein told CT Examiner that because the apartments were relatively small, they were naturally affordable.
“If you’re talking about a basement apartment, I don’t think you’re gonna be able to get someone to rent it for $3,000 a month, $4,000 a month or some huge number,” Goldstein said. “I just don’t think that’s practical.”
Goldstein added that the smaller apartments would most likely service young residents at the start of their careers and seniors looking to downsize.
Numerous residents provided public comment at the council meeting, urging members to opt out of state laws. Resident Diane Lauricella opposed the city’s regulations and proposed a change.
“Let’s work together because we need to tweak these regulations,” Lauricella said. “They went too far.”
Council member Dominique Johnson, who recently won the District 143 state House of Representatives seat, thanked residents for joining the conversation and addressed the Planning and Zoning Commission directly.
“I don’t mean to step out too far, but this is my last council meeting, so I’ll say – Planning and Zoning Commission owe it to the people to respond and adapt and revisit as we go,” Johnson said. “And if we’re not seeing the ADUs emerge in a few years, especially in the neighborhoods with larger lot sizes, then we should amend, we should revise, we should see what we’re doing.”
In an email, Planning and Zoning Commission member Bryan Baker told CT Examiner that moving forward, the commission would consider a significantly-reduced fee for a detached ADU site plan review, but said determining the effects of the recently-changed regulations could be difficult.
“Indicators may be difficult to gauge since ADU construction prior to these regulation changes was low and with our new regulations removing many restrictions and allowing detached ADUs, we’re anticipating ADU construction to increase,” Baker said.
Baker advocated for the addition of the site plan review, saying it required the same materials to be submitted as an attached unit application. He said the key difference was that applicants must submit documents to the commission rather than the zoning enforcement officer.