Fairfield Commission Divided on Allowing Presentation of Draft Housing Bill

Fairfield Town Hall (CT Examiner).

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FAIRFIELD — A request by housing advocates to present an upcoming bill to the Town Plan and Zoning Commission sparked a debate on Tuesday about the role local officials should play in state legislation.

While a draft version of the bill has not yet been released, Desegregate Connecticut — a nonprofit affiliate of the Regional Plan Association — has started scheduling meetings with local planning and zoning commissions to present its Work Live Ride legislation. According to the nonprofit, the bill, which failed to pass in the 2023 legislative session, would incentivize transit-oriented housing development by offering prioritized state funding to participating municipalities. 

But at the Tuesday meeting, three of the seven commissioners in attendance questioned why they should hear a presentation by Desegregate Connecticut, pointing to potential repercussions.

“I don’t see any point in our entertaining out-of-town lobbyists to come in here and talk about why we should support legislation they are lobbying for at the state level,” member Kathryn Braun said.

Aside from her personal opinions on the bill, Braun — a Republican who “vigorously” opposed the Work Live Ride bill in the state Legislature last year — said it’s not the commission’s job to comment on Connecticut legislation. Rather, she said, the body should focus on local proposals and adjustments to Fairfield zoning law.

Because the commission has never allowed a lobbyist group to present a bill in this manner, Braun added, their approval could open up the “floodgates” for requests from other groups.

Alexis Harrison, a Republican commissioner and co-founder of CT169 Strong — a grassroots group lobbying for local zoning control that also opposed the 2023 bill — criticized the presentation as well, arguing that approving Desegregate Connecticut’s request would set an undesirable precedent for other lobbyists.

Republican Commissioner Daniel Ford suggested that the nonprofit bring its proposal to Fairfield’s state legislators, and questioned the impact the commission could have on the substance of the bill.

“We have elected legislators in this town that represent everyone who lives here,” Ford said. “We don’t have a seat at the table as to whether we support or object to whatever they’re presenting.”

But other commission members, state legislators and Desegregate Connecticut urged the importance of local input on the bill, especially given that it could directly affect the commission’s work.

Under the 2023 draft, transit-oriented communities would have received grants for projects like brownfield cleanups and sewer system repairs, as long as they met the bill’s minimum housing density markers, created affordability requirements and removed excessive parking requirements around train and bus stations. Critics of the proposal have argued that the requirements would strip away local zoning control by holding state grants hostage, while proponents said the bill strikes a balance between state and local control by allowing municipalities to determine the size and location of their transit-oriented district.

On Tuesday, Republican Chair Thomas Noonan said an open conversation between the nonprofit and commission members could potentially motivate changes to the proposal. Because Fairfield already has zoning laws regulating transit-oriented districts, he said, members should take the opportunity to push back on hindrances to local development.

“There’s a chance that maybe we can have some impact on this legislation, and maybe it’s to the town’s benefit,” Noonan said. “This state law will affect us if it’s passed.”

Democratic commissioners Tom Corsillo, Steven Levy, Jeff Randolph and Jeanine Pocoski joined Noonan in pushing for the presentation.

“I think it would be a mistake to forfeit that opportunity,” Corsillo said.

After a nearly 45-minute discussion, the commission voted to allow the presentation at an upcoming meeting in a 4-3 vote, with Braun, Harrison and Ford opposed.

On Wednesday, Desegregate Connecticut Director Pete Harrison told CT Examiner that comments from local and state officials are important, as they inspired changes to this year’s bill.

While the new bill will be largely the same as the 2023 proposal, Harrison said the group plans to remove some of the original density requirements, expand affordable housing options and include local wetland agencies in the planning process to encourage municipal support.

Harrison said the group presented its idea to many local planning and zoning commissions in 2022 and 2023, and used the feedback to make changes. Although he understands the inherent tension between local control and state oversight in Connecticut, he said, collaboration at all levels is key.

“We think it’s not a binary choice, and we want what is most effective at the local level to get passed at the state level,” Harrison said. “​​Sometimes there’s some folks that, I think, have different conceptions of what the conversation will be, or that it’ll be some kind of an endorsement. And that’s not the case.”

In addition to Fairfield, Harrison said Desegregate Connecticut has requested presentations with commissions in towns like Greenwich and Wilton. He said the group is approaching officials in good faith to solicit their input and move the bill forward.

Asked about the commission debate on Wednesday, State Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield, who voted to send the bill to the full General Assembly on the state Planning and Development Committee last year, said housing is the biggest crisis that the state is facing right now. McCarthy Vahey said it was critical for Desegregate Connecticut, as the lead advocate for this particular effort to incentivize new housing, to hear feedback from officials.

While she said legislators will engage their constituents about the proposal, McCarthy Vahey questioned why some members of the Fairfield commission would reject a chance to do the same.

“I do find it ironic that members of the commission who have consistently conveyed their interest in being able to have a voice are pushing back when given the direct opportunity to have a voice and to provide public and transparent input into ideas,” she said.

Echoing McCarthy Vahey, State Rep. Jennifer Leeper, D-Fairfield, said Wednesday that  she can’t imagine why commission members wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to influence a bill, given local concern over state housing laws.

“I’ve often heard from members of our TPZ Commission that the legislative process isn’t inclusive enough of local voices when it comes to policies to address our housing crisis,” Leeper said. “While bills receive public hearings specifically to hear from the public, this is a unique opportunity to elevate the voices of Fairfield’s TPZ commissioners and empower them to share their policy concerns and ideas directly with one of the organizations advocating for them.” 

State Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, who opposed the bill in the state Planning and Development Committee, and State Rep. Sarah Keitt, D-Fairfield, did not respond to requests for comment.