Bid to Rollback Limits on Local Zoning Heads to Senate Floor


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STAMFORD – A bid to rollback legal limits on local control over zoning has been scaled back but survives and is heading to the floor of the State Senate.

The legislation would undo a so-called “rat” – a piece of law quietly tucked into a big bill as a political favor – in the 2023 state budget.

Senate Bill 333 would once again allow municipalities to change their charters on matters of zoning, a contentious issue in housing-strapped Connecticut.

SB333, in its original form, would have restored municipal power over four charter matters now prohibited by the so-called rat.

But SB333 has been reworked and, if passed, likely will restore municipal power over only two zoning-related charter matters, said State Sen. Ryan Fazio, who crafted the bill.

“I think we need to do something to give municipalities the rights and control they need to operate local government and keep communities engaged,” said Fazio, a Republican whose District 36 includes Greenwich and parts of Stamford and New Canaan. 

Municipalities lost some power to change their charters – or governing documents – after the law was slipped into must-pass legislation on the final day of last year’s legislative session as a favor to Stamford’s Democratic Mayor Caroline Simmons.

Simmons, a strong supporter of new housing and development in the city, was seeking to block zoning-related charter changes under discussion in Stamford. But the law, Public Act 23-205, affects all 109 Connecticut municipalities governed by charters.

It prohibits municipalities from amending their charters to change:

  • The makeup and powers of their zoning and planning boards

  • Rules that allow citizens to challenge zoning decisions by petitioning

  • Rules that allow a municipality to take private land by eminent domain

  • Rules governing the sale of public property.

The bill introduced initially by Fazio, SB333, aimed to restore the authority of municipalities to revise their charters on all four matters, but in its current form the bill would change only two: allowing local control over rules governing eminent domain and on selling public property.

The Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives “said they were willing to keep those two parts in,” Fazio said. “But the part about changing the petition process is gone, and the part about changing the composition of planning and zoning commissions is questionable.”

Mayor defends last-minute bill

The curtailed bill made it through the legislature’s Planning and Development Committee and now goes to the Senate floor, Fazio said. If it passes there, it moves to the House floor. If it passes there, it goes to Gov. Ned Lamont for his signature.

“I appreciate that leadership is willing to negotiate, and I’m open to negotiation with my friends on both sides of the aisle,” Fazio said.

Last year Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives helped Simmons, a former state representative, slip the legislation limiting local control over zoning into last-minute legislation. 

Simmons continues to support the measure, and earlier this month she testified against returning control to local government.

Simmons testified that Stamford last year “went through a charter revision process which included a number of proposals that were anti-housing and anti-inclusive economic growth that would have been detrimental to the prosperity of our city.”

But fellow Democrats on the city’s Charter Revision Commission have balked at the charge that they are anti-development. They say they wanted to change the charter to give residents more of a voice in development decisions by requiring more public hearings; to make it easier for citizens to petition zoning decisions; and to set a higher vote threshold for the city to seize private property or sell public property, members said.

Simmons has said she encouraged the passage of Public Act 23-205, the so-called legislative rat, because the local Charter Revision proposals would have impeded development in Stamford.

If Public Act 23-205 is repealed, Simmons testified, “we will be hindered in our ability to foster inclusive, equitable, economic growth and address the affordable housing crisis that is impacting cities and towns across our state.”

Developers have built more than 12,000 apartments in Stamford over the last decade, with hundreds more under way. 

Stamford’s Board of Finance Chair Richard Freedman, a housing developer, also testified against SB333.

“The proposed charter revisions would have ground multifamily development in Stamford to a halt,” Freedman testified. “We are one of the few municipalities in Connecticut where new housing is constructed at a meaningful scale and the negative impacts from choking off our supply would have reverberated statewide.”

Three others testified in opposition of SB333.

Stamford resident Jerry Silber said it’s “because it would enable the unbalancing of power between the mayor and Board of Representatives.” 

Anne Manusky, president of the CT Republican Assembly, a conservative group, said she opposes SB333 and seven other bills 

because they “have not been reviewed for constitutionality.”

Gary Corigliano, town of residence unknown, provided his testimony in four words: “I oppose all bills.”

Twenty four testified in favor of SB333.

Unbalancing state and local governance 

James Greco of Stamford testified that by limiting local control Simmons had undermined the work of the Charter Revision Commission:

“The mayor of Stamford undermined the work of the Stamford Charter Revision Commission, which would have given clarity and definition to home rule provisions to the Stamford charter pertaining to land use, zoning issues, and protest petitions,” Greco testified. “This action on the part of the mayor was reprehensible and completely undemocratic.”

Stamford resident Johnna Paradis said land-use matters are about people’s futures.

“A more perfect union … will only happen when we are allowed to speak, be heard, and trust our local government,” Paradis testified. 

One-size-fits-all state mandates don’t work, said Stamford resident Dennis LoDolce: “Please consider that each challenge is different for every municipality, so they must be flexible to tailor their responses according to their needs and resources.”

Bristol Mayor Jeffrey Caggiano testified that he supports SB333 “as it retains the ability for local zoning to increase housing for the

‘missing middle’ or workforce housing” and other needs specific to a community.

Tina Courpas, a candidate for state representative in District 149, testified in favor of SB333. 

“Currently, if a town is selling off town-owned land to developers and the citizens want more hearings and more opportunities for public input, they cannot amend their town charter to do so. If a town feels that its local officials are seizing private property through eminent domain and feel their rights are violated, they have no power to amend the town charter to change the process of eminent domain in their town,” Courpas testified. “The freedom to peacefully request change based on a community’s changing needs is fundamental to democracy and logical.”

Francis Pickering, executive director of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, testified that the longer the “overbroad” changes made in Public Act 23-205 “stay law, the greater the risk they will create unforeseen consequences for other municipalities.”

Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, testified that the organization supports SB333 “to ensure that municipalities have the authority to revise their charters to address local governance issues.” 

David Flemming, director of policy and research for the Yankee Institute, a Hartford think tank that advocates for limited government, testified that “the legislature hastily, and perhaps accidently, upended the balance between state and municipal government by passing Public Act 23-205.”

The legislature “ought to uphold municipalities like Stamford as shining examples for other Connecticut municipalities to follow regarding the power of local control over charters, rather than as loose cannons in need of restraint,” Flemming testified. “Giving back choice to local voters around the state will strengthen our residents and families’ faith in government, while creating a more cordial relationship between state government and all 109 municipal governments with charters.”

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.