Former DesegregateCT Director Talks Transit-Oriented Development, New RPA Role 

Pete Harrison, Connecticut Director of the Regional Planning Association (Contributed).


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Former DesegregateCT Director Pete Harrison was named director of Connecticut programs for the Regional Plan Association this year. 

In a recent conversation with CT Examiner, Harrison discussed his advocacy efforts, particularly around HB 5390, the “Work, Live, Ride” bill encouraging transit-oriented development, which recently advanced through the Planning and Development Committee. The bill aims to incentivize municipalities to adopt transit-friendly policies, establish a state housing development council, and create a fund for water and sewer infrastructure expansion.

Harrison also explained the terminology used in land use discussions, contrasting the car-dependent pattern of development since the 1950s with the envisioned “post-sprawl future” that focuses on creating walkable, affordable communities.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

CT Examiner: Let’s talk about the important details of bill HB 5390.

Pete Harrison: The gist of it is we are working towards creating this “post-sprawl future” in Connecticut, that prioritizes development around our bus and train stations and creating more walkable communities, more diversity of homes, more walkable jobs, services. … And to do that we want to provide more technical assistance and state funding in the communities that opt in to doing this kind of process.

… There are a fair amount [of towns] that have done this in the last few years or that sit on plans. Oftentimes from the conversations we’ve had with these communities, they don’t necessarily have the staff capabilities or the staff at all; or if they are trying to do the zoning, it’s hard to get the state coordinated to make sure folks get sidewalks or other types of discretionary funds. 

The bill, in a nutshell, allows the Office of Responsible Growth and OPM to set up guidelines around what we want to see in a transit-oriented community district. If a community wants to opt in at the local level, they can go through their normal planning process and their Planning and Zoning Commission, along with their Wetlands Commission, and create a district around a bus or train station of their choosing. Once they do that, they’re going to get prioritized for different state grants to expedite the development of the infrastructure in these districts.

CTEx: What types of grants would towns be eligible for through this legislation?

The Office of Responsible Growth is going to create an inter agency council around transit-oriented communities, and they’ll figure out what grants make sense and how to prioritize those at the discretion of each agency involved. [The idea is to] to try to get the state to coordinate a little bit more strategically around its Plan of Conservation and Development that comes out every five years, which in theory is supposed to do a lot of this type of work, but practically, hasn’t in previous iterations. 

I think there’s a lot of buy-in at the state agency side to get folks in the same room and coordinating. … Brownfield remediation was removed from the bill, just because we’re concerned that communities that don’t have transit might be impacted by that.

CTEx: Would it be a zoning overlay district near a town’s transit node — train or bus station? 

Harrison: Yeah, that’s exactly it. There are probably like 10, maybe a dozen, towns and cities that have already done some kind of transit-oriented development district. Those communities would be grandfathered and they wouldn’t have to do anything zoning wise if they didn’t want to, but they could get funding and technical assistance. There are … about 40 towns and cities that have some kind of TOD study or plan. Some of them are actually very well detailed, but they haven’t been adopted by the planning and zoning commissions for a variety of reasons. … So we think there’s a pretty sizable amount of communities that, when presented with this type of a carrot approach … the local politics will shift in favor of adopting these kinds of districts.

CTEx: How will the sewer funding work for communities that need to build sewer facilities? 

Harrison: That’s a pretty legitimate sticking point for communities. In Ridgefield … they’ve got a great plan for the Branchville station on the Danbury branch line, but … they don’t want to do the zoning without having a better sense of how they would [handle that issue], whether it’s a community septic or hooking up to the Redding water treatment plant across the border. 

From the organizing that we’ve done across the state, we’ve identified [sewers] as … a barrier to getting these things passed. So we have stood up a new fund that won’t get funding this year, but the intention is to create additional funding and steer some of the federal infrastructure money coming down into these communities to either create water and sewer where it doesn’t exist, or expand it where it exists in parts. Some of these systems are incredibly old and need rehabilitation or resiliency for climate change, so that that fund will be available in those districts for folks that opt in.

CTEx: What is the proposed amount for the sewer fund?

Harrison: We actually didn’t even propose funding this year. We recognized that just with the fiscal guardrails, there are a lot of things that need priority funding in the housing space. We didn’t want to distract from that. So that’ll be a conversation, certainly next session in the next budget year going forward.

CTEx: How does the Office of Responsible Growth, which is part of HB 5390, operate?

Harrison: [The office was] an executive order under Jodi Rell back in 2006. … Last year, we were able to get it passed in the state statutes. Previously, because it was an executive order, there wasn’t a lot of formal authority in the office, and to do a lot of the inner agency work that they’re going towards, we wanted to stand up that office up more. So last year, we were able to not only get it in the state statutes to give them more formal authority, we got some additional funding for staffing and they’ve since hired some additional staffers for that office.

CTEx: What are your big projects, issues and priorities in your position at RPA?

Harrison: The immediate next couple of weeks we want to see “Work, Live, Ride” get passed. I think that’s going to open up a lot of great opportunities at the local level for a commission to jump in on this, and for local pro-homes advocates to get involved and advocate for this post-sprawl future. 

I’m definitely excited to jump in more on the transportation side. We hear it all the time — there’s traffic up and down I-95 and there’s concerns about how do we grow our economy if we’re sticking everybody on the roads? So improving our rail and bus service is a priority. There’s some exciting things happening on clean energy — the New London port starting off with shore wind projects — and we want to be involved in that and be constructive of how we balance the need for increasing capacity on the electricity grid, and get more renewable energy and wind and solar. Those are going to be really important conversations in Connecticut. That’s a big goal, across bipartisan support at the local and state level. 

There’s going to be opportunities for all of these things to work together — DesegregateCT, transportation work and clean energy work — trying to articulate this vision of what a post-sprawl looks like for Connecticut and also for the RPA region in New Jersey in New York, and it’s pretty exciting. 

I think we’re in the early stages at the national level in having these conversations. And for me, I’ve been in this work now for three years in Connecticut, having grown up in Connecticut, I’m excited to have this opportunity to push for some cool stuff that speaks to a lot of different people across the state. And it’s cool for having to draw on 100 years of research and advocacy from RPA so I’m very optimistic that really bright days ahead for Connecticut and being a small part of that is going to be a lot of fun.

CTEx: What does it mean that Connecticut is in a “post-sprawl” development phase? What does the term mean and where does it come from? 

Harrison: We are very much in a sprawl type of land-use pattern in this state and, frankly, across the country. What we mean by sprawl is single-use, low-density, car-centric planning. … Ninety-one percent of Connecticut’s residential land is zoned exclusively for single-family homes as of right, and what that means in practice over the last 50 to 60 years is we’ve sprawled our development. We haven’t concentrated it in our urban cores or our village centers, which historically we had been doing. We had very walkable communities where you didn’t need to have a car.

In the mid 20th century, across the country, all levels of government, the public sector and private sector adopted this kind of worldview of sprawl and homeownership and car ownership. When you had an abundance of land and you were converting farms, tearing down forests to build residential areas and commercial corridors along highways and such, it seemed like that was the cheapest, fastest way to support growth. But as we know, just empirically through any number of research papers on the environmental impact, the economic impact and the equity impact, sprawl is really designed to be exclusionary and designed to limit access outside of car ownership or homeownership.

That’s gotten us into this converging, affordable housing crisis and climate crisis where you have a significant amount of carbon emissions because of our car-centric planning, and we do not have a diversity of homes in smart places. So we have low vacancy rates on the rental side, we have skyrocketing housing prices and low inventory on the ownership side. That can all be traced back — not entirely, but certainly predominantly — because of these sprawl land-use decisions. 

When we mean post-sprawl, we’re trying to carve out an alternative in the 21st century in Connecticut, to sprawl. In a basic sense, we want to see mixed-use, higher density, more transit- and walkable-oriented planning to get away from that sprawl and car-centric planning. What’s great about Connecticut, because it’s an old state, particularly [with] its industrial history, you have a lot of historically transit-oriented cities and towns, and even some more rural communities that used to be actually more connected through rail or rivers or canals. 

CTEx: TOD relies partly on reliable rail travel. Can you comment on the state’s funding of rail, especially Shore Line East and the impact of the recent funding cuts? 

Harrison: It’s certainly relevant, specifically to Shore Line East. We’re supporting the restoration of that service. … I have a lot of sympathy for the Lamont administration and trying to balance a lot of priorities, a lot of cost. But even the state DOT has done some great studies on the potential for Shore Line East and supporting transit-oriented communities along the Shore Line East corridor. … It might be painful in the short term from a cost standpoint, but committing to that service frequency is going to have such a boon for that part of the state, which has a lot of jobs coming in because of Electric Boat and already has a lot of pressure and housing costs. 

Certainly credit to the Lamont administration for putting a lot of investment into rail. The Hartford line has already exceeded 2019 pre-COVID ridership. There’s been some neat TOD projects in West Hartford, particularly, along CT Fastrack, in a couple of communities along the Hartford line, and expanding the service in the Waterbury branch line has been great. 

… I think the evidence is clear that when you invest in the rail network as the state has on other lines, good things happen economically. So certainly that is true about Shore Line East, and we certainly want the governor to commit to that service.

CTEx: Critics of RPA and DesegregateCT have said the organizations are funded by developers. How do you respond to that? 

Harrison: I will say [in] pro-homes groups across the country, which is a pretty bipartisan movement, that’s a criticism that I think is brought up a lot in these groups, whether they’re on the right or the left.

Specifically for DesegregateCT, we’re transparent about where funding comes from. We’ve got our annual report up on the website. And as I said, 100% of that comes from community foundations and Connecticut individuals. Open Philanthropy is a group that supports a lot of these groups nationally as well. And none of those folks are developers. 

RPA is a 100-year-old civic organization. It’s very prestigious. It’s one of the first of its kind in the country. So pretty much every major industry in the metropolitan area of New York, from tech to healthcare to developers are involved in it. I think sometimes folks in good faith get confused about the difference between DesegregateCT’s budget and RPA’s. But either way, it’s not like developers are beating down the door to do this kind of work. 

When you get into this work, there isn’t a monolithic group on any end. [Some] developers do benefit from scarcity and the Byzantine zoning world that exists and actually don’t want more competition, particularly from smaller mom and pops, which is something we encourage. 

It’s the criticism that I think people have, and whether it’s good faith or bad faith, we’re advocating for change, and folks sometimes will question those motivations. 

CTEx: Could you explain the meaning of “pro-homes?”

Harrison: Being in the space of zoning reform, it has a number of different names. Some people call it YIMBY or “Yes in my backyard.” Some people say pro-housing, some people say abundant housing. But we really like this idea of “pro-homes.” A home can be something you own, something you rent, it can be a short-term solution, it can be a long-term solution. It’s a physical structure, it’s a community, it’s a sense of belonging. So we like to own that term and talk about this positive vision. We’re not talking about housing units or products. We’re talking about people’s homes.