Transit-Oriented Development Bill Lacks Local Input, Environmental Provisions

Alexis Harrison

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To the Editor:

I recently had the opportunity to share my thoughts on HB 5390An Act Concerning Transit-Oriented Communities and my opposition to pieces of the legislation.

There have been a few missing pieces from the conversation on initiatives to develop in our transit areas by the bill’s proponents, DesegregateCT.  First, it’s important to note that for decades, transit-oriented development has already been a success story in Connecticut – created by the vision of scores of local towns and zoning commissions to attract new generations to move or stay in our great State. Many municipalities have taken the initiative and continue to develop and build upon TOD areas without needing State supervision or control, or the removal of local voices as called for by HB 5390.

In my town of Fairfield, we have developed TOD in partnership with developers and other stakeholders in the town to create walkable and vibrant communities. And we recently amended our zoning regulations to enable more density and mixed-use development in one of our TOD districts and passed a number of developments which include many affordable units. This was designed and customized to the exact needs and capacity of our town.

There is also redundancy with HB 5390 – the Municipal Redevelopment Authority known as MRDA will fund transit-oriented developments in towns that implement “housing growth zone” regulations which are aimed to promote a diversity of housing near our transit areas including affordable housing and middle housing, etc. The General Assembly passed this initiative, and it was signed into law by the Governor last year.

Similar to the TOD bill proposed by DesegregateCT last year, their bill would penalize towns that don’t opt-in by deprioritizing state discretionary funding including STEAP and brownfield funding. This means that Fairfield which recently got a brownfield grant to clean-up for a project in our recently enhanced TOD district, would have penalized for taking the initiative. This harms towns that are already doing what this bill wants them to do.

Another major concern to me is that the bill would remove public hearings. This completely silences the residents of our state whose towns opt into this bill. As a planning and zoning commissioner, public hearings and having the opportunity for the public to weigh are critical to applications. They know their neighborhoods best, and often provide interesting facts and context that is helpful to understand as we deliberate.

Once a town opts in, it relinquishes control to a combination of developers and the state coordinator. No public hearings would be allowed on any development activity in the TOD. Middle housing could be as large as nine units. Worse, it allows an 8-30g development without a public hearing. On my commission, 8-30g hearings are well attended and many pertinent issues are raised by the public. Even in a TOD district, public hearings are necessary for good decision making and for being good stewards of our land.

I have environmental concerns as well and it is baffling why many notable environmental groups in Connecticut are in favor of DesegregateCT’s bill.  Although the bill would have wetlands agencies have input into the size and location of the TOD, this does not go far enough to preserve natural resources and environmental health. And ultimately the state coordinator or zoning czar who never stepped into your town is the ultimate arbiter on the size and scope of projects.

1) The actual footprint of the transit-oriented communities area is subject to the  state coordinator’s oversight and final approval.

2) Land that is not regulated by wetlands agencies, but should be preserved, will be subject to “as of right” highly dense development with no requirements for open space preservation.

3. The bill does not specifically preserve coastal areas that require a greater degree of natural space preservation to enable tidal marshes to migrate landward as the sea level rises – this should be a specific provision in this bill. Many transit areas are situated on the coastal shoreline. 

Alexis Harrison
Fairfield, CT

Harrison is a member of CT169Strong and an elected member of the Fairfield Town Plan & Zoning Commission but speaks as an individual.