Stamford Looks to Loosen Rules for Accessory Apartments, Walking Back 2022 Compromise

(CT Examiner)


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STAMFORD – Two years ago, most Connecticut towns were scrambling to opt out of a state law allowing the addition of an apartment to any single-family home.

The law, which effectively allowed for the conversion of single-family homes to two-family homes, was controversial enough that lawmakers in Hartford had to include a provision to opt-out to get it passed. Ultimately, 115 out of the state’s 169 towns opted out.

State lawmakers, mostly Democrats, and housing advocates wanted the law to help ease the state’s shortage of low-cost housing.  

Caroline Simmons, who was a lawmaker in Hartford when the law passed in 2021, voted for it. But as the city’s Democratic mayor, Simmons supported opting out and writing new local regulations to allow the apartments called ADUs, or accessory dwelling units, in some form. At the time the city prohibited the add-ons.

Resistance was strong in Stamford, where neighborhoods are congested with add-on apartments, many of them illegal. But Simmons’ administration worked with planning and zoning officials and the Board of Representatives to craft regulations that permit them under certain conditions.

That was in the fall of 2022. 

Only later, at this week’s meeting of the Planning Board, a surprise surfaced. 

It was a proposal from the Zoning Board to strike half the 2022 regulations, making city policy more like the looser state policy.

The unexpected regulation change was followed by an oddity.

Planning Board Chair Theresa Dell postponed the discussion on apartment add-ons to call for a public hearing, saying there was a “need for additional public input” before the board votes.

Usually Zoning proposals brought before the Planning Board aren’t given a public hearing. But a comparison of the three sets regulations makes it clear why Dell strayed from regular procedure.

Three sets of rules

Here’s how Stamford currently regulates ADUs:

1. ADUs are allowed only on single-family lots larger than 10,000 square feet

2. The ADU may be no larger than 800 square feet

3. The homeowner must live in either the house or the ADU

4. Occupancy of the ADU is limited to three persons

5. The unit must have at least one off-street parking space

6. ADUs cannot be used for short-term rentals, such as an AirBnB

For comparison, here’s how the state regulates ADUs:

1. ADUs are allowed on all single-family lots, regardless of size

2. ADUs may be as large as 1,000 square feet

3. The homeowner does not have to live on premises

4. The number of ADU occupants is unlimited

5. The ADU occupant does not have to be related to the homeowner

6. No more than one parking space is required

Here are the changes proposed by Stamford’s Zoning Board:

1. ADUs would be permitted on all single-family lots, keeping to requirements for each zoning district

2. The maximum ADU size would be eliminated, as long as it and the house together do not exceed building coverage limits for the lot

3. The maximum occupancy for ADUs would be eliminated.

In its application, the Zoning Board wrote that the purpose of the changes is to make it easier for people to add ADUs “as they are one important tool to address the current housing crisis.”

Limiting the size of ADUs and the number of people who live in them counteracts “the goal of making ADUs a source for comparatively affordable housing,” according to the Zoning Board, which hopes that easing regulations will increase the number produced. Since Stamford legalized ADUs in late 2022, “only a dozen or so permits … have been filed,” the Zoning Board wrote.

A case of ‘bad manners’

City Rep. David Watkins, a Republican who represents the Shippan neighborhood, says that’s not a good move.

“The regulations we passed in Stamford were negotiated with the Board of Representatives and the Zoning Board because both had to agree to opt out. So there were considerable discussions,” Watkins said. “It’s somewhere between bad management and bad manners for the city to attempt to unilaterally change the regulations a year and a half after they were passed by negotiation.” 

He’s concerned about parking, Watkins said. The proposal does not eliminate the requirement for one off-street parking space per ADU, but that was written for ADUs no bigger than 800 square feet. 

“Now the unit can be quite a bit larger and have more people, but there’s still only one parking space,” Watkins said.

It’s not clear where the proposal originated but “I think it has become crystal clear that if the Planning Board and Zoning Board proceed with this, there will be a petition to the Board of Representatives.”

In Stamford, residents may gather signatures to petition city representatives to overturn Zoning Board decisions. 

Asked where the ADU changes originated, Simmons special assistant Lauren Meyer said that “the proposed ADU policy came through the Land Use Bureau organically.”

The Land Use staff provides research and drafts regulations for the Zoning Board.

However, Meyer said, the Simmons administration “is engaging stakeholders on various relevant boards to attempt to build consensus around any proposed changes to the ADU policy and has suggested holding the item until such opportunity is pursued.”

The administration has “spoken to several members of the Board of Representatives about this strategy as well,” Meyer said.

Attempts to revise the ADU regulations may not be well known, however.

“I was present at the Planning Board meeting but I wasn’t aware that ADUs would be on the agenda, since there was a meeting in 2022 and a committee was formed, including with members of my board,” said Gerry Bosak Jr., a Republican who sits on the Zoning Board. “A majority of the Board of Representatives voted on regulations for ADUs in 2022, and this would reverse all the hard work of that board and the compromises that were made.”

Democratic city Rep. Nina Sherwood, majority leader of the Board of Representatives, said “there was so much negotiating and compromise, with everyone coming together in a productive way” in 2022.

“Not even a year and a half later, that compromise is being threatened,” Sherwood said. “When the Board of Representatives and the administration and the land-use boards worked together so well, that was something we should be proud of. The idea that we wouldn’t uphold that compromise is disappointing.”

Watkins said the city continues to fall short on enforcement, and relaxing ADU regulations will invite more people who think they “can put up a second building on their lot and create 50 percent more rental space that is not legal, and get away with it.” 

“People who just want more housing will consider that a win. For people concerned about congestion and parking and the law, that’s a loss,” Watkins said. “This possible ADU change is a trap door for eliminating single-family housing. It’s an emotional topic.”

No date has been set yet for the Planning Board’s public hearing.

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.