STAMFORD – During a Board of Representatives meeting this week, Democratic city Rep. Megan Cottrell laid out a view of the development that has earned Stamford the moniker “fastest-growing city in Connecticut.”
“The goal, for many, is to turn Stamford into a luxury place,” Cottrell said. “We are attracting affluent people from New York and surrounding areas, and pushing people out of Stamford. It’s a massive giveaway to the real estate industry, and we have to recognize that.”
Development is at the core of a controversy that began last month, when Democratic Mayor Caroline Simmons, a former state representative, quietly launched a bill in Hartford to block Stamford from changing consequential zoning regulations in the city charter.
Changes that would have gone to Stamford voters for approval are now moot. The bill has been signed into law so, from now on, Stamford and all other Connecticut towns governed by charters, about 110 of them, cannot revise significant zoning regulations in their charters. They have to ask the state legislature to do it.
Simmons’ move has angered fellow Democrats, who outnumber Republicans 36-4 on the board. During the meeting at which Cottrell spoke, city representatives passed a resolution urging Gov. Ned Lamont to call a special session of the legislature to repeal the law blocking charter revisions. But Lamont refused.
Simmons has said she took action against the charter revision proposals because they would discourage development, economic growth, job creation, and private investment, and shrink the housing stock.
Cottrell and other city representatives who supported the charter revisions, however, say the kind of development happening in Stamford needs the checks and balances proposed by the Charter Revision Commission.
“When you put up luxury building after luxury building, prices are going to go up and up. We keep being told to add more housing and prices will go down. But they have not gone down,” Cottrell said during the meeting. “In fact, it’s increasing rent prices at non-luxury buildings around it. Real estate (experts) have told us that wouldn’t happen, but guess what? It’s happening.”
She referenced a December report from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis that found that, between 2011 and 2021, rents in Connecticut dropped to levels nearer the national average in all metropolitan areas, except one.
In the Stamford-Norwalk-Bridgeport area, rents increased from 56 percent above the national average to 57 percent, according to the report, which showed that nearly all of it was driven by Stamford. Rents in Stamford, for example, are more than double what they are in Bridgeport.
Cottrell said the push for more affordable housing, which Simmons said would be harmed by the charter revision proposals, has a flaw – it excludes the city’s affluent areas.
“New housing is not being built … in all neighborhoods,” Cottrell said. “It’s specifically the working-class and middle-class neighborhoods that are being asked to give and give.”
When residents of those neighborhoods push back against development because they are already congested with multiple-unit housing, illegal apartments, and vehicles parked on lawns and bumper-to-bumper at curbs, they are labeled Not In My Back Yard, said Democratic city Rep. Jeff Stella, who also supported the charter changes.
“When I hear NIMBY, it’s so offensive to me, because anyone who opposes an affordable housing project is called NIMBY,” Stella said during the meeting. “You should call us EIMBY, Everything In Our Back Yard.”
In his West Side neighborhood, multi-family structures go up next door to single-family homes, along with all manner of commercial projects, Stella said.
“We’re tired of change that’s supposed to be better for our districts, when it’s not,” Stella said. “When we fight it, they say you guys are NIMBY, but it will never happen in their districts, it will never affect their quality of life. They will never have to worry that their house will be worth less when they sell it because somebody put a container store next door.”
Supporters of the charter revisions say they were proposed to allow people most affected by development more say in zoning matters.
The proposals would have allowed residents to appeal zoning decisions by gathering 300 signatures from anywhere in the city, rather than just in the immediate area of a development; allowed modification of planning and zoning regulations, such as increasing the number of public hearings; and required approval from a larger percentage of officials before the city could take private property by eminent domain or sell public land.
Cottrell said it’s a lot easier to gather signatures to appeal a zoning decision in single-family, owner-occupied neighborhoods. It’s a different story in neighborhoods where property owners are limited-liability companies or absentee landlords, she said.
“In areas where development is happening quite rapidly, it’s a lot harder to petition,” Cottrell said, so Simmons’ action “basically preserves the status quo (petition rights) of the single-family homeowner in certain affluent parts of Stamford.”
Charter Revision Commission members Frances Lane, Cynthia Bowser and Karen Camporeale have said during their meetings that they wanted to raise the vote threshold for condemning private property because officials nearly always take property in working- and middle-class neighborhoods where residents don’t have the means to fight the city in court.
Charter revisions were on the table in Stamford on June 7, the state legislature’s closing day, when the law advocated by Simmons passed, nearly unnoticed, as part of a major bonding package authorizing billions in spending for capital projects statewide. Laws passed in this way are known in Hartford as “rats.”
The controversy over the charter prohibitions will likely continue over the summer, as the Board of Representatives debates the rest of the Charter Revision Commission’s proposals. Meetings are set for 8 p.m. Monday and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. See http://www.boardofreps.org/ for details.