Darien P&Z Considers Allowing Accessory Apartments

Darien land use director Jeremy Ginsberg's presented the different forms of ADUs that could be permitted if a proposed zoning change is passed (Contributed).


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DARIEN — Nearly two years after Darien opted out of a state law permitting accessory apartments, sometimes referred to as in-law suites, the Planning and Zoning Commission has proposed zoning changes to allow the units.

The amended regulations would permit residents to build or convert existing space into additional living quarters on their properties, and apply to any separate living space with an indoor cooking facility, such as a stove, hotplate or microwave. 

Though the town is not mandated by the state to change its zoning rules, Chairman Steven Olvany said the commission believed it was important to explore the idea of allowing ADUs and take steps toward diversifying local housing options.

For the past 18 months, commission members have been developing a framework for the regulations and examining the strategies adopted by neighboring towns like Westport, Fairfield and Greenwich. 

The draft rules stipulate that each residential lot is limited to a single ADU, which must adhere to existing setback requirements from the back, side and front of the property. Additionally, the ADU must comply with all health, building, fire safety and environmental codes. Campers, mobile homes, trailers or RVs would not qualify as ADUs. The proposed changes also prohibit building exterior stairs to access the additional living space.  

ADUs would not be allowed in commercial zones nor the Noroton Bay neighborhood, due to the area’s high flood risk, making it the only residential zone exempt from the regulations. 

For a more attractive and balanced aesthetic, the commission has capped the size of an ADU attached to the primary home at 700 square feet, whereas a detached structure is limited to 1,000 square feet and must constitute less than 30% of the total finished area. 

“We want these detached units to fit in as best they can,” said Jeremy Ginsberg, Darien’s land use director, during his presentation at Tuesday’s public hearing.  

The panel decided to keep the existing 20% building coverage limit on the amount of land that can be developed. Ginsberg explained that ADUs wouldn’t be permitted if the primary building, together with any sheds, decks or pools already occupied 20% of the property. 

To avoid overcrowding on neighborhood streets and to guarantee clear paths for snow removal, the proposed rules mandate separate off-street parking for the primary dwelling and the ADU. The extra parking would not be permitted at the front or side of the house.

Ginsberg acknowledged the on-site parking requirements might be the “main stumbling block” for people considering building an ADU on their property, but said “the commission did not want to see a whole bunch of vehicles parked in front of houses on a front lawn.”

The commission is also pushing for an owner-occupancy provision, requiring the homeowner to live in either the primary dwelling or the ADU.  

“We didn’t want developers to come in, build a house and an ADU in the backyard and just sell them off to two people or rent them out to two different people,” explained Ginsberg.

The proposed amendments also include a sunset provision, meaning they will expire in five years unless the commission moves to readopt them.  

Longtime Darien resident Charlie Bowditch, however, said he’s concerned about contractors taking advantage of the new regulations with little regard to their impact on the surrounding neighborhood. He’s also worried about the potential strain on the town’s infrastructure and resources, and the effect on property values resulting from a population density increase. 

“Once the genie is out of the bottle there will be no reversal with repercussions to the schools, traffic, environment and the overall character of Darien,” he said.

Noting the absence of any provision empowering the commission to place liens or impose fines on offending property owners, Darien resident Amy Zabetakis questioned whether the owner-occupancy requirements were enforceable.  

“I just don’t see how you can have that as part of the regulation when you can’t enforce it,” she said. “I think you’re giving neighbors a false sense of security.”  

Former First Selectwoman Evonne Klein commended the members’ efforts to address the town’s affordable housing issues. Noting Darien’s high cost of living, she said the ADUs will help attract young professionals, keep empty-nesters from relocating and accommodate multigenerational households.  

“I think there is a great opportunity for the town to diversify its housing options,” she said.  

The panel took no action on the amendments. Residents have until March 24 to submit comments on the proposed zoning changes to the Planning and Zoning Commission.

A video of the hearing on Darien TV79 is available here.