Grassroots Groups Battle New Slate of Top-Down Zoning Bills

Apartment building in Stamford (CT Examiner)


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The state legislature is in full swing, setting grassroots groups on full alert.

They’re watching for housing bills.

Their guard is up this year, as in the two previous years, for what they say are Hartford’s repeated attempts to wrest control of zoning regulations from towns and cities.

In their attempts to solve Connecticut’s housing shortage, state lawmakers are bigfooting, grassroots groups say.

Housing advocates, however, look past the big brother aspect in the face of a tremendous need for affordable housing, according to testimony gathered during public hearings at the capitol earlier this month. 

Among the grassroots groups are the Stamford Neighborhoods Coalition, a member of the statewide organization CT169Strong – 169 for the number of municipalities in Connecticut. Both groups testified against bills raised since the legislature convened Jan. 4.

Creeping housing authorities

One is House Bill 6593, An Act Concerning Housing Authority Jurisdiction. The purpose is to allow a housing authority in one municipality to expand, without permission, its area of operation into another municipality. 

Under the bill, the housing authority in, say, Bridgeport, could develop and operate affordable housing projects and issue housing vouchers in Darien without Darien’s approval. 

Barry Michelson of the Stamford Neighborhoods Coalition, a former member of the Stamford Zoning Board, said Tuesday he went to Hartford on Feb. 7 to testify against HB6593.

“There’s a big disconnect between the way people feel and the way legislators are voting,” Michelson said. “It’s a continuous barrage of legislation to undermine home rule. People don’t want it. We’re constantly going to battle because we don’t want one-size-fits-all zoning from Hartford.” 

The Connecticut General Assembly’s website shows that a significant majority of those who submitted testimony during the public hearing oppose HB6593. 

Wendy Bowditch of Easton testified that it “is beyond comprehension” that the housing authority of one town could “potentially use eminent domain for their own gains” in another town. Eminent domain allows a government to seize private property for public use, providing compensation to the owner but not needing the owner’s consent.

Easton is “a guardian of watersheds and reservoirs,” Bowditch testified. “To even consider risking the water source of these reservoirs is unconscionable. If we cannot preserve our own local control and resources, then we have nothing.”

Kathryn Braun, a real estate attorney from Fairfield, testified that all stakeholders should be involved in drafting such bills.

“There is likely a bill that could accomplish the goals this committee seeks without eviscerating municipal zoning, but you need to hear from all sides,” Braun testified. “I urge this committee to bring a broader array of … interest groups into the mix by focusing outreach on more than just development interests and housing advocates.”

Don’t punish me

According to the General Assembly’s website, HB6593 was introduced by the Housing Committee, co-chaired by two Democrats – state Rep. Geoff Luxenberg of Manchester and state Sen. Marilyn Moore, who represents Bridgeport, Monroe and Trumbull.

Douglas Davison, a Connecticut resident, expressed outrage in his testimony.

“The continuing effort to surreptitiously take away local zoning control needs to stop,” Davison wrote. “I have worked hard my whole life to be able to afford to live in a quiet, bucolic low-density single-family town, for which I pay one of the highest tax burdens in the nation, and it seems like all our elected representatives want to do is punish me for it.”

State resident Timothy Clark testified that zoning is local and must be handled by individual communities. 

“Bureaucrats don’t give a damn about communities!” Clark wrote. “I support fair housing and affordable housing … because everyone needs a roof over their head. But there needs to be planning, and quality of life needs to be considered, and only local cities and towns can accomplish this.”

The handful of HB6593 supporters focused not on the state’s usurping of local authority but on the huge need for affordable housing in Connecticut.

Create choice

A supportive statement was submitted by Sean Ghio, senior policy advisor for the Partnership for Strong Communities, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring Connecticut residents have a safe, affordable home in the community of their choice.

“We support policies, like this bill, that increase housing choice and mobility for residents, as well as expand access to jobs, a diversity of neighborhoods, and schools,” Ghio testified. “Most housing authority residents are people of color that live in areas of higher poverty. Increasing community choice for housing authority program participants is a positive step toward increasing the racial and economic diversity of Connecticut’s municipalities.”

Will Viederman, housing policy manager at Elm City Communities, New Haven’s housing authority, testified that low-income residents are forced “into neighborhoods where, because of decades of discrimination and systematic disinvestment, there are too few resources available to outweigh the immense costs of spending more than half of an already meager income on housing.”

In Connecticut, “64 percent of extremely low-income people … spend more than half of their income on their housing, because there are only 42 affordable units available for every 100 extremely low-income renters,” Viederman wrote. 

Board vs. board

Testimony supporting a bill before the state Senate focused on making it easier for developers to get projects through zoning boards.

In a Feb. 1 public hearing, it garnered a lot of support from land-use attorneys.

A total of seven attorneys from Carmody Torrance Sandak & Hennessey, Robinson & Cole, and Shipman & Goodwin  – along with eight attorneys from the Connecticut Bar Association – submitted letters of support for Senate Bill 915, An Act Concerning the Granting of Variances by Zoning Boards of Appeals.

The bill would allow zoning appeal boards to override decisions by zoning boards.

Attorneys from the law firms submitted testimony that appeared to be variations on a form letter. They said Zoning Boards of Appeals “are intended to act as a safety valve to allow relief from zoning standards where necessary,” but state laws limit appeals boards because they can grant variances only when an applicant shows an “exceptional difficulty or unusual hardship.” 

Courts have interpreted that to mean that a variance may be granted only when property owners demonstrate they will be denied any reasonable use of their property, the lawyers testified.

“This extremely high standard is antiquated and rarely (if ever) met,” the attorneys testified. 

But they got a lot of pushback, according to testimony posted online by the General Assembly.

A legion of variances

Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said SB915 would “relax the requirements for granting variances in some circumstances and could have unintended consequences that may increase hazards to life, property, and the environment.”

Frank DeFelice of Durham, chair of the Regional Planning Commission for the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of

Governments, testified that the bill would grant zoning appeals boards the same functions as zoning boards.

Two agencies would be able to approve or deny a special permit for the same land use, “resulting in a conflicting and potentially expensive legal quandary for our municipalities,” DeFelice wrote. “To my knowledge … no two agencies within a single municipality have ever issued the same permit, license or registration … for good reason.”

Christopher Kelly, a lawyer with Save the Sound in New Haven, said the bill would “lower the standards for a zoning board of appeals to issue variances.”

That shouldn’t be, Kelly testified.

“Variances are intended to assist property owners in entirely unique or unforeseen circumstances, not to grant case-by-case approvals to be exempted from these regulations,” Kelly wrote. 

Zoning ‘won’t solve’ it

Michael Zizka, an attorney with Halloran & Sage who testified he has 40 years of experience in land use and municipal law, disagrees with his fellow members of the Connecticut Bar Association in their support of SB915.

The bill “would have substantially harmful impacts on Connecticut’s zoning policy and on Connecticut,” testified Zizka, who wrote two books on land-use law. 

Zoning regulations are based on “fairness and equal treatment

under the law,” Zizka testified. They are “not supposed to be based on case-by-case regulation that can be arbitrarily applied to different properties – and different property owners – based on

amorphous criteria. That form of regulation may too easily fall prey to favoritism and politics, with preferred landowners receiving benefits denied to most others.”

That’s so, Michelson said Tuesday. Housing is critically scarce, but state officials have to find a better way to provide it, he said.

“Zoning provides a guide for developers and protections for communities from uses that are incompatible from one another,” Michelson said. “Zoning won’t solve the housing problem.”

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.