Lost in the High Pressure Lobbying is the Actual Benefit of Local Decision-Making

Image Credit: Robin Breeding


TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

To the Editor:

Fairfield might need to spend as much as $500 million to build 2,064 new affordable housing units within the next 10 years if the “Fair Share” bill is passed as it is proposed.

There is no state funding to assist so the entire cost would be borne by Fairfield taxpayers.  And, this is based on a conservative estimate of the unit cost, and it doesn’t include other costs which will permanently burden the Town and Board of Education and Capital budget each year: Fairfield would need to add staffing to both the Town and Board of Education, build new schools, and improve road and sewer infrastructure. For comparison purposes, Fairfield’s annual budget is just over $350 million.

As you know, I’ve been tracking the zoning and housing bills being debated in Hartford this legislative session, which is due to end in June with a likely vote on zoning bills as soon as June 1. Several of the land use bills may be combined into a ‘mash up’ including portions of the Fair Share bill, various Transit Oriented Development bills (“Work Live Ride” and other TOD bills), and others. Some have called the specter of combining onerous, burdensome and unfunded development mandates into one broad bill, a “Frankenstein Bill”, and for good reason. None of these bills, which would impose a permanent, massive burden on budgets and infrastructure on almost all of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities budgets, have been adequately vetted out with  feasibility studies, environmental impact studies or economic impact studies.  

For example, Easton and a dozen other ‘water company’ towns, have a majority of their land dedicated to ‘low impact development’ for the purpose of safeguarding our entire state’s drinking water supply. Yet Easton has at least 6,000 acres of land near its multiple reservoirs that serve over 700,000 people including over 90% of Bridgeport, which would be developable with dense apartment buildings, should such a ‘Frankenstein bill’ pass. Fairfield would suffer from Easton’s burden as community septic would have to be installed to accommodate the new development quotas, to add to the septic that already leach into Mill River, a significant local resource that the DEEP says is already impaired. 

For another example, climate change is already requiring Fairfield and all the coastal communities to plan for a minimum 20-inch rise in sea level, and this impacts the ability to locate large population densities in the coastal areas.  Climate change affects all of Connecticut which must plan on both flooding and drought, which can have very local impacts based on the topography of each town.  

This isn’t even the whole story. If Fairfield wishes to save on the direct cost of building the 2,064 new housing units, and leaves it to developers to build by using our already existing ‘inclusionary zoning” regulations which require 10% of each large development to be deed restricted as affordable, then over 20,000 new housing units must be built to ensure that 10% of them would equal the quota being mandated for our Town.  That is a 90% increase in our entire housing stock. That is unsustainable.

There’s more. If the Town fails to develop a new zoning plan that would ensure the development of these 2,064 affordable units, or if the Town fails to ensure that they actually get built over a 10-year period or meets milestones along the way, then Fairfield would be subject to ‘default zoning’. Default zoning would end our zoning regulations altogether and enable multifamily housing, as of right, throughout our entire town.  

Under the Fair Share bill, Fairfield and all other towns would also be able to be sued by developers or housing advocacy groups that normally would not have standing to sue, should Fairfield fail to meet the development milestones. 

The Work Live Ride bill is onerous in a different way.  It claims to be voluntary but is not really because any municipality that fails to opt in would be penalized by being ‘deprioritized’ from State infrastructure funds, including brownfield remediation grants.  Ignored is the fact that Fairfield already took the initiative to develop TOD and is actively expanding it, after commissioning a TOD study several years ago. Yet if the Work Live Ride bill passes, then Fairfield would likely be deprived of brownfield remediation grants it would normally be entitled to, simply because it is doing TOD already and doesn’t choose to let the State take over TOD. 

If Fairfield were to opt in, then most decisions concerning the TOD would be determined by a powerful new State official called a ‘Coordinator’, who would run an expanded ‘Office of Responsible Growth” and interpret and enforce compliance with the TOD law, including determining the size of the TOD. And, the Work Live Ride bill is not actually a TOD bill because it omits any requirement for retail or commercial activity.  It also has very little affordability, from zero to 10%.

If the Fair Share bill is combined with the ‘Work Live Ride” bill then our Town’s local zoning commissions could well be overridden by orders from  this new State “Coordinator”, who would become a de-facto Zoning Czar, imposing central planning onto what has always been local decision making, interpreting and enforcing the new zoning law(s) and determining if our Town is in compliance. 

Lost in all the high pressure lobbying of our state delegation by development interests, is the actual benefit to our town from local land use decision making.  It is our elected zoning and planning commissioners who are accountable to the voters, and who know what works for our Town, and being residents, have a vested interest in the long term economic and environmental health of our town. Land is uniquely local and extremely dependent on land use decisions in the surrounding area. 

Zoning also keeps the pace of change at a sustainable and achievable rate.  Forcing our town to choose between spending $500 million or doubling our housing stock over a 10-year period,  is not advisable by any prudent public official responsible for the welfare of the town.  But a State official who is neither knowledgeable about our Town or accountable to our Town’s voters, and who has a mission to expand multifamily housing state-wide, would be in charge.

And, it should be noted that Fairfield has a very good record of creating affordable housing, starting in 1988, with the “Affordable Housing Plan for Fairfield”, which was one of the first such plans in Connecticut. Our accomplishments as a community also include the establishment of the Housing Trust Fund, we’ve enacted an inclusionary zoning fee, adopted zoning regulations for inclusionary zoning, updated zoning regulations for accessory apartments and are building out thriving transit-oriented development areas.

Along with scores of other concerned residents, planning & zoning officials, environmentalists, local representatives from both parties, I’ve testified against the Fair Share bill, the Work Live Ride bill and have offered ideas and critiques to Gov. Ned Lamont’s Municipal Development Authority bill.

I ask that all concerned residents of Fairfield or any other municipality email the state legislature and ask that they vote no on Fair Share (HB6633), Work, Live, Ride (HB6890) and to follow the revisions suggested by CT169Strong on the Governor’s bill.

You may have heard that public hearing is over, but the legislature reads emails and letters and they need to hear from you. I encourage you to reach out to your Hartford delegation.

Alexis Harrison
Fairfield, CT

Harrison is a member of the Fairfield Plan & Zoning Commission but writes this letter as a private citizen