For longer than anyone can remember, Connecticut towns have had the ability, granted by the state, to control their own zoning locally. That may, however, be about to change, if certain proposals now circulating in Hartford and around the state become law. This is a subject that affects everyone, and I think it’s important that you be informed.
The most notable exception to local zoning control is the 8-30g statute, which was passed 30 years ago and was designed to stimulate the construction of affordable housing in towns where less than 10% of the housing stock is designated as affordable. The statute is controversial: its effectiveness has often been questioned, because it hasn’t helped to increase affordable housing as much as hoped. This has kept the issue on the front burner for many years.
The need for a larger supply of different types of affordable housing dispersed throughout the state is generally well recognized. Legislative debate has most often focused on how to expand the supply faster in areas where it is sparse – often, but not always, small towns. Residents of these areas tend to support increasing affordable housing in their towns, but want the ability to determine where it makes the most sense for developers to build it and what architectural characteristics it should have.
Recently, however, in the wake of national events, focus among affordable housing advocates in Connecticut has shifted from just increasing supply to reforming land use and zoning laws as a way of combating racial segregation and inequities.
The reform proposals that you may have been hearing about have come from a number of different sources. They include:
- The state Senate Democrats, who released the outlines of a housing proposal as part of a much longer legislative agenda earlier this summer. (You have to scroll down quite far in the document to find the section on housing.)
- An advocacy group called DesegregateCT, which has circulated a full agenda of land-use reform proposals.
- Sen. Saud Anwar (D-South Windsor) has drafted a bill, LCO 3562. Because it is a draft and can’t be introduced into the IT system while the legislature is not in session, it’s posted on his web site, but not on the General Assembly’s site.
- Mayor Justin Elicker of New Haven, whose July 16 op-ed piece in the CTMirror, entitled “Let’s Tax Segregation” argued that towns where less than 10% of the housing stock is designated as affordable should be financially penalized.
There is a fair bit of overlap among all of these policy and legislative documents. A few of the proposals are likely to receive widespread support. One is requiring training for local land use commissioners. Another is awarding credits for affordable housing to towns that approve a proposal submitted by a developer under the 8-30g statute without going through an appeals process (these can be long and costly).
Many of the other proposals are likely to be more controversial. For example:
- Eliminating single-family zoning
- Requiring 50% as-of-right multifamily zoning within a half-mile radius of transit stations and a quarter-mile radius of major corridors, downtowns, and other commercial areas
- Allocating 10% of the land in every town with 5,000 or more residents to multifamily housing and mixed-use properties
- Prohibiting the use of “preserving town character” as a criterion for zoning decisions
- Allowing local zoning authorities to terminate non-housing nonconforming uses of property even while they are active
- Prohibiting consideration, in zoning decisions, of traffic conditions or fire safety factors that fall outside local fire codes
- Financially penalizing towns with zoning codes considered segregationist or exclusionary
- Allowing local public housing authorities to expand their areas of operation by 15 miles to “high opportunity” areas, including those outside their town boundaries
The concerns that many of you have expressed to me are focused on issues of one-size-fits-all central control, decision-making, and lack of certainty, notably the possibility that the state could be taking over the responsibility for zoning in towns from the very people who live in them. If this were to happen, those controlling local zoning would no longer be accountable to the residents of the towns they would be affecting. People worry that uncertainty about future housing density might affect home purchase decisions. And many also feel they would miss being able to speak with their peers in town about resolving local zoning issues. A number of small-town residents and officials have also noted that authors of these proposals seem to assume, incorrectly, that no small towns have taken steps to increase affordable housing locally – a need on which almost everyone agrees.
The advocates for these proposals have said the moment is ripe to take action now, and they have therefore been pressing to have them considered during a special session in September. No session has yet been scheduled, however.
This is a complex subject that demands thorough consideration by legislative committees and broad-based public input in real public hearings (as opposed to last week’s Zoom “listening sessions” without adequate public notice) that cannot take place properly in pandemic conditions. I believe that the September timing is possible, but unlikely. I think it is very probable, however, that legislation for the 2021 regular session will be introduced on this subject in January.
Again, these measures would affect residents of all municipalities, from cities to small towns. I urge you to read more about them, as your feedback will be invaluable to legislators who will be making important decisions.