No Agreement on Plan to Allow Two-Family Homes ‘By Right’ in Norwalk

Houses along Strawberry Hill Avenue in Norwalk (Credit: Google Map Data, 2023)


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NORWALK – After 8 hours of listening to residents debate a draft revision of city zoning regulations, members of the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission could not come to an agreement regarding the proposed merger of single- and two-family neighborhood designations, a change that would allow two-family homes as of right in residential neighborhoods across the Norwalk.

While the proposed revision would affect the entire city by consolidating its zoning designations, one change has dominated a series of public hearings held by the city: the proposed merger of B Residence Zones allowing single-family houses and C Residence Zones allowing single and two-family houses.

At two hearings held by the commission in June, residents filed into the City Hall community room to weigh in on the proposed change. Those opposed to the merger say they worry of reduced property values, overcrowded street parking and overdevelopment in single-family neighborhoods, while those in support say the change would encourage the development of affordable housing for new residents and additional income for two-family homeowners. 

Adoption of the new rules is ultimately up to Norwalk’s Planning and Zoning Commission. But at a virtual Wednesday commission meeting, members were split on the change.

Commission Chair Louis Schulman was one of the first to oppose the merger. 

Schulman said that after walking “virtually every neighborhood” affected by the change, he came to realize the regulations were not appropriate for many of the single-family neighborhoods. But while opposing the proposal, he also noted that many of the public comments made during the hearings were simply “not factual,” even if he still supported their broader point.

“I sort of would like to keep faith with the residents of the city on this issue, even though I disagree with much of what was said,” said Schulman.

After announcing the draft revision in April, the city’s Department of Planning and Zoning created an online form to collect and respond to community comments.  As of Thursday, those questions and answers stretched to 47 pages addressing many public concerns, including claims that the city has “sold out” to developers.

“I think that an awful lot of what we heard from the public during the last two meetings was borne out of fear, and that a lot of it simply was not factual and the staff memo addressed some of that,” Schulman said. “But I also feel that … we should eliminate the up-zoning of one-family neighborhoods to allow two-family units.”

Norwalk’s Department of Planning and Zoning has said that merging the single-family and two-family zones would “increase the opportunity for home ownership” without a large increase in density. 

Schulman said the department’s rationale was “reasonable,” but also lacked real world considerations.

“It makes sense to have density closer to the inner-city areas of the city, closer to where there’s public transportation,” Schulman said. “But when you move from the planning world – where they are – to the real world – where we find ourselves – I think that it’s different.”

But Planning and Zoning Commissioner Jacquen Jordan-Byron argued instead that the efforts of single-family homeowners to maintain the status quo of their neighborhoods  was “unrealistic.”

“The notion that no neighborhood ever changes is a fairy tale,” Jordan-Byron said as other commission members nodded along. “Every neighborhood goes through transition, whether good, bad or in the middle.”

But Jordan-Byron said that she did not support the construction of high-rises or large condominium complexes in single-family neighborhoods, as some residents have suggested, just the diversification of housing options in Norwalk.

“I mean, that is just like the smallest compromise to create more housing options..” Jordan-Byron said of the proposed merger. “I just don’t understand [how it] became the boogeyman.”

Commission member Galen Wells, who also supports the merger, said residents opposing the change didn’t seem to understand three key parts of the rewrite – parking, ownership and property values.

At the June 28 commission public hearing, many residents in single-family neighborhoods said they worried that the merger would lead to additional on-street parking. 

Robert Coppola, a Norwalk resident for more than 40 years, said parking on Strawberry Hill Avenue – a neighborhood beside Nathan Hale Middle School – is already a “nightmare.”

“Parking is incredible on Strawberry Hill Avenue. It was never like this before,” Coppola said. “…You’d be lucky to get a fire truck through those areas.”

But on Wednesday, Wells said they failed to acknowledge that the draft rewrite would require new two-family homes to provide four off-street parking spaces.

Wells also took issue with the idea that two-family homes would be primarily occupied by renters.

“They didn’t seem to understand that 60 percent of the two-family houses that exist today are owner occupied,” Wells explained.

She said the third misconception was the assumption that two-family homes would decrease property values in single-family neighborhoods. Instead, Wells argued that converting a single-family into a two-family would actually increase the home’s value.

“I think if people understood those three things, they’d feel very differently,” Wells said. “And I don’t know how we communicate these things to people.”

But commission member Tammy Langalis said that as a residential real estate agent in the city for 20 years, she has an intimate understanding of Norwalk neighborhoods and understands some of the fears.

Langalis pointed to the large variety of neighborhoods throughout the city, from rural to urban. She said many residents bought their homes because they enjoy their neighborhood.

“Their house is their big investment. They liked the neighborhood that they bought in because, one, that’s where they chose to live. Two, it’s probably where they can afford to live,” Langalis said. 

While Langalis said it is great for the city to advocate for more affordable housing, she said that financing a two-family home isn’t always affordable. 

“If you have a condominium-style, two-family house and you’re trying to sell one side of it, the bank wants to know who’s gonna live on the other side,” Langalis said. “And that isn’t necessarily as affordable, or the bank won’t lend to it.”

For those interested in renting a unit in a two-family home, Langalis also pointed to growing rents in Norwalk apartment buildings. 

While “lower-end” rentals used to be somewhat affordable, Langalis said the influx of people leaving New York City during the pandemic and moving to Norwalk prompted the construction of new “high-end” buildings with rent for a studio apartment reaching $3,000 in some areas of the city.

Langalis said that it could be more affordable to purchase a single-family home than rent a unit in a two-family home.

“The [units] up at Merritt 7, they’re all $2000 plus and they’re 500 square feet for the $2,000-a-month unit, so they’re not affordable.” Langalis said. “But if you can find a house for that, then you’d be doing a lot better because you would be building equity.”

While the members of the commission could not agree on the proposed zone merge, most said it is important for the commission to consider the other details of the draft rewrite, which look to promote mixed-use development, preserve open space and expand public access to coastal areas.

Schulman said that they may not decide on the proposal by the department’s preferred deadline of September 2023, but the commission will continue to discuss the draft rewrite at its upcoming meetings.