[OPINIONS] Cons, Pros Of State “Multi-Housing” Bill

Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce executive director and RTM member Matthew Mandell sends regular emails to a large list. He addresses a variety of local topics.

The other day he weighed in on State Senate Bill 1024, concerning multi-family housing. He wrote:

More than one bill being proposed in Hartford would usurp local zoning laws and single family zoning, and allow as of right multi-family housing.

One would mandate this change 1/2 mile around any train station, as well as 1/4 mile from a commercial zone.

Another would allow duplexes (2-family homes) in any single family zone.

The former, which I will focus on, would include both Saugatuck and Greens Farms areas, the swaths along Riverside Avenue and all along the Post Road. We are talking hundreds if not thousands of properties.

The Westport train station has long been the center of multi-use developments.

The term “as of right” means free to do it essentially without Planning & Zoning  approval. Any developer could come in and build 4 condo units on any property they wanted, regardless of our rules, and the concerns or living choices of the neighbors.

There is a need for affordable housing, no argument, and social inequities exist in our state. The cause of much of this is being laid, by the proponents of these measures, at the door step of our towns and more than often those towns in Fairfield County. Past zoning rules, now outlawed, fostered exclusionary practices and this, they say, still needs to be rectified. More importantly, they also say current zoning decisions still do this.

So in order to set things straight, all towns across the state would have to accept this responsibility and must allow this unfettered development.

Many legislators, senators and representatives, want to be doing the right thing. So do most of us. Being on the right side of history, by creating more affordable housing and correcting social injustices, is for the most part a no-brainer. It’s right.

But many of them yearning to help have and are being persuaded that this specific legislation is the right way to do it. It is not. It’s like many things that start with the best of intentions, if not vetted thoroughly, and yes challenged, have significant and unintended consequences

The proponents believe that legislating by fiat and across the board densification will solve the problem. Yet there is no proof offered that any of this housing would be affordable or that a great diversity of individuals would be benefited. It is a theory, it seems, without verified merit and a myopic view of how planning works.

For years, Canal Park has offered affordable housing for seniors, near downtown.

What is most bothersome to me is that this would be done without regard to how this would affect those that currently live in these towns and specific areas. At risk are the areas where economics presently support naturally affordable housing and the strivers who have worked hard to have a home with a front and backyard for their kids to play.

In the case of Westport, this legislation would actually thwart our efforts to create housing diversity. We currently mandate 20% affordability for all multi-family housing and have advanced proposals to create more. We actually have done such a good job that not only did the state award us with an 8-30g moratorium that other towns are looking at what we have done to emulate it.

If this legislation came to be, developers would snap up the choicest of properties first, most likely along the river and build million dollar condos all along its banks. This would then cascade to more and more lots, especially the naturally occurring affordable, creating more unaffordable housing, stressing water, sewer, police, fire, school and road infrastructure.

The negative environmental affects would be dramatic as the walkable community envisioned would not exist as basic household needs and jobs would still be a drive away instead of within this newly over dense community. Saugatuck would grind to a halt and Greens Farms would be a shadow of itself.

Bottom line: All transit hubs and TOD’s are not the same and top down. One-size-fits-all legislation simply does not work. The only people who this would actually benefit are developers.

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Lawrence Weisman disagrees. Because he has no mechanism like Mandell’s to respond, he asked “06880” to post his response.

Dear Matt:

It is my observation that when a debater tries to persuade an audience of the rightness of his position by offering a parade of horribles, he is almost always on the wrong side of the issue and, for want of substance, is reduced to hyperbole.
Your description of the substance of this bill and its consequences is a prime example of that tactic.

You are wrong about both the substance and the probable consequences of the bill, and your reference to those “who have worked hard to have a home with a front and backyard for their kids to play” is a classic dog whistle in favor of exclusionary policies.

Connecticut has a systemic bureaucratic problem in addition to its systemic racial problem. Government in our state is fractured. We have counties but no county or regional government with authority to address what are clearly regional problems, among which are transportation, the environment, and housing.

So rather than trying to deal with regional issues in an uncoordinated town by town basis, we are obliged to rely on statewide action to produce uniform results. That’s what this bill is intended to do and why it is needed.

Westport is not the villain in this piece. Our P&Z has done and continues to do its part to address housing inequity and the need for affordable housing, and it is even considering “as of right” accessory dwelling units.

1177 Post Road East includes 30% affordable units, according to state standards.

You say that “as of right” means without P&Z approval, thereby suggesting that it means unregulated, but what you don’t say is that these accessory units do not require P&Z approval precisely because they are limited by regulation as to size, height, building coverage, number of parking spaces, and the amount of unused permissible coverage on the lot in question.

You do yourself, your constituents and the town as a whole a grave disservice by urging a point of view which is ungenerous, ill-considered, and provincial, and by playing to the fears and ultimately the prejudices of those who are resistant to change.

We desperately need new ideas for solutions to problems which, because they have existed for so many years, are assumed to be immune to correction. This bill is a judicious and creative step in the right direction which deserves your support.

Sincerely,
Larry

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Last night, State Senator Tony Hwang held a Facebook Live meeting on proposed zoning legislation. Among the bills is the one referenced above.

There is a public hearing in Hartford this Monday (March 15). Click here for information on that hearing, as well as a video of Hwang’s discussion. (Hat tip: Cornelia Fortier)

 

25 responses to “[OPINIONS] Cons, Pros Of State “Multi-Housing” Bill

  1. The second opinion published is entirely self interested on behalf of the author’s real estate developer clientele. And he offers no disclosure and transparency of his role seeking to overcome town authorities every day of the week. I urge all voters and citizens to ignore the business development promotion sales pitch aka second opinion. As for the first opinion published, I’d observe its too long and meandering to make its point crisply. Perhaps a Comment could make the first opinion more accessible.

    • That might be a good point Alex if I were still practicing, but I’ve been retired for 5 or 6 years now and have no clients, only 53 years of experience with these issues

  2. We told you all this would happen – multi family housing jammed down the throats of suburbs with the threat to withhold state and federal funds for non compliance. Corey Booker told us this would happen is his party gets in office, so why is anyone now mad or surprised this is happening. One thing I did not see in the second opinion worth noting is the multi-family housing will be required to be for low income families…so expensive condos on the river will not meet this requirement. This isn’t being political, this is just restating what the candidates said during the campaign and matching it up with policies and proposed laws now coming out.

  3. Donald Bergmann

    I disagree with Larry Weisman’s suggestion, possibly only an implication, that CT needs to have county governments. Yes there are regional issues, but they are not defined by counties. On balance, I believe County government is likely to generate more negatives than positives, with one negative being cost and additional layers of government that are unlikely to be able to address issues effectively.

    As to the substance of the legislation, Larry Weisman notes that the law, if adopted will include many regulatory, zoning protections that would address height, density, set backs and, hopefully, some design standards. I ask that Larry recite those for all to understand.

    A key question for the proponents of the legislation is what is its purpose. For example, is it intended to promote affordable housing? If so then the legislation must mandate that and, I suggest, should be a mandate far in excess of the 20% mandate under 8-30g. Is the legislation intended to increase the minority population in certain CT towns? If so, how can that mandate be accomplished since most Republicans, assuming the legislation is driven by Republicans, oppose affirmative action. Will the legislation pertain to areas near all commercial streets and all train stations, or will it be limited in its impact upon Towns, e.g. if a town has two train stations, could the law be made applicable to only one or could the length of the commercial roads impacted be limited.. How will the law address the costs of increased density and the downside of increased traffic? Will the State provide funds for the cost of the possible increase in school population? Will the state provide funds for mass transit? Also, how will the windfall, sort of like finding gold on ones land, that will accrue to present landowners and, most likely to the first of the developers who make use of the law, be addressed? By declaring that a single family property may now be used for an apartment building that is five stories high, has minimal setbacks and no on site parking there is a huge cash windfall to that property owner or to a developer who acquires the property from an ignorant seller. Such windfalls should, at the very least, be windfalls that benefit more than just the landowner.

    I believe this legislation is, or will prove to be fundamentally flawed. Time will tell.

    Don Bergmann

  4. It is clear from your comment that you haven’t actually read the bill. I suggest you take the time to do that before offering an opinion.

  5. Matthew Mandell

    Larry,

    I don’t intend to “debate” you. I will let the language of the bill speak for itself.

    https://www.cga.ct.gov/2021/TOB/S/PDF/2021SB-01024-R00-SB.PDF

    The bill allows a minimum of 4 buildings per lot, minimum of 15 units per acre, as of right, 1/2 mile from train stations and 1/4 from main commercial areas. This is not about creating affordable housing, in my opinion it is about making towns small cities.

    The hearing is Monday 10am before the Planning and Development Committee.

    If anyone wants to comment signup here:

    https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_F10fDzNYTD2KAbjH5bKNMw

    or email pdtestimony@cga.ct.gov

    This will have repercussions for years to come.

  6. I no longer live in Westport, but having spent most of my life there I care deeply about the town and would hate to see it’s character destroyed any further. I believe in home rule, not dictatorship by Hartford legislators with their own agendas and social engineering goals. It should also be mentioned that Larry Weisman has long been one of the most aggressive real estate attorneys in the town. He has turned neighbors against each other trying to overcome reasonable objections and force approval of questionable projects. Almost every overbuilt monstrosity in town has his fingerprints on it. Larry has never hesitated to threaten the town with lawsuits when he has not gotten the desired approval for clients’ projects. Higher permitted density, more building, and more lawsuits will bring him more business and put more money in his pockets, win or lose. I have no problem with that reality – ours is a free society with rule of law, citizens have a right to counsel, and he is allowed to express his opinions. However, THE REST OF US SHOULD BE WELL INFORMED AND CONSIDER THE SOURCE.

  7. All of these bills are designed to take away local control and out the towns and municipalities under total control of the state government. I 100% support Matt Mandell and urge everyone who cares about the environment and their town to MAKE NOISE against these bills that are being ram-rodded through while everyone’s focus is on Covid.

  8. Cathy Walsh P&Z Commissioner

    Last night I watched Senator Hwangs event . It was factful and was focused on the issue of taking away Home Rule. The subject is extremely complicated and the issues they are attempting to solve are too numerous to discuss here. The bottom line is there are 169 tons in CT with 169 different land use issues. One size does not fit all. All towns of CT have either elected or appointed P&Z commissions who understand all aspects of their towns.

    If you are concerned about your property rights, the best thing to do is write to our 4 elected State officials immediately. They should be representing those who elected them and not play party politics.

    Here are their emails:

    Jonathan.Steinberg@cga.ct.gov
    Stephanie Thomas@cga.ct.gov
    Will.Haskell@cga.ct.gov
    Tony.Hwang@cga.ct.gov

    Please write and reference HR 1024 as outlined in Matt Mandell’s opinion piece above. It’s important to do and do it now. The hearings begin on March 15.

  9. Russell Gontar

    Massachusetts’s 40B law allows developers to bypass local zoning regulations if a percentage of these units are deemed “affordable”. The law is deliberately written to overcome objections from neighbors while allowing development on tiny scraps of land where the solution is to build as many units as necessary on multiple levels. Elevators and parking slots included, no extra extra charge.

    • You’re comparing Massachusetts to CT, a ‘pass through’ state? One has
      and continues to strive, economically, educationally, corporate hq, sdoh initiatives. One continues to die a slow economic death. See if anyone from Weston MA, Newton, Brookline, towns that welcome diversity, want to move to Westport never mind CT.

  10. Hi everyone,

    Figured I might as well join in. I have read the bill three times. Like most of them it is not easy to navigate. If I am incorrect please feel free to provide me feedback and continue the dialog.

    My high level summary is the goal of desegregating CT is to be met through more density with SOME level of housing affordability. I would counter here that density in and of itself does not equate to affordability. While there are a number of sections with general language about this goal, the only one I find with any actual “teeth” is the following:

    =======================================================
    (c) For any development or housing allowed under subsection (a) of
    this section that includes ten or more residential units, at least ten per
    cent of such residential units shall be an affordable housing
    development, as defined in section 8-30g of the general statutes, as
    amended by this act.
    =======================================================

    My interpretation here is that any development UNDER 10 units does NOT have to provide ANY affordable units. Imagine a 8 luxury condo development on the shores of Saugatuck River or in Greens Farms near the train station that is enabled by superseding ANY local P&Z regulations. I suspect there are a number of developers would jump on projects like that.

    For any development of 10 units and above the developer ONLY has to provide 10% affordable. Yes we can encourage developers to include more affordable units, but that doesn’t go very far. So we’re back to the issue of building SOME affordable units, but also adding a heck a lot of UNAFFORDABLE (“market rate”) units. Only adding a small amount to the numerator of affordable units, and a LOT of unaffordable units to the denominator means we will be a LONG, LONG way from hitting the townwide 10% 8-30g mandate. This bill as I read it will only exacerbate the problem, not make it better.

    Bottom line is that IMHO this will stimulate a lot more density and achieve only a marginal impact on affordable housing, all with the state superseding local level control of planning and zoning for a significant percentage of Westport. It will make the goal of hitting the 8-30g goal of 10% harder, not easier. There has to be a better approach than this bill.

    Respectfully submitted
    Art Schoeller
    President
    Greens Farms Association

  11. Alex Anvari, you obviously never met Larry Weisman or talked with him..even if he were still in practice, the shit you posit would not influence his considered opinion of the likes of HR1024.
    That said, 1024 sucks; if passed, it WILL make urban areas out of CT. towns, and is promulgated out of “white guilt” which should be dealt with on the analyst’s couch and not on the backs of single family towns and home owners.
    HOWEVER, the worst, the most dangerous thing about HR1024 is that it is largely supported by the Democratic arm of our legislature and that Democratic support will, without question, be one more quiver in the arsenal of Republican push back against ALL progressive legislation and, eventually,
    will lead to another Trump or Trump sycophant in the White House, come 2024…we “liberals” must be real careful about what we wish for, or we will be permanently screwed.

  12. Thanks Dan for knowing the difference between a disagreement and an ad hominem attack. Upon reading Mr. Anvari’s and Mr. Starr’s comments – neither of whom I know – my wife said, “Oh, you’re not nearly that bad”. Given the contrast , I took that as a compliment.

  13. Having run a county government in WA, west of Seattle, it’s clear that county governments are needed where there is much unincorporated land (i.e., no towns). County governments fill a big gap in providing services. A county government is probably duplicative in CT.

    The legislation being debated here carries a hidden tax. All homeowners who bought with location in mind — say on streets like Valley Road — will see their home values go down when the denser housing units go in. This effect will unevenly spread the financial impact of the legislation.

    Perhaps the legislation should include a compensation clause that will allow any homeowner who believes they were impacted to file for redress on their decreased real estate value.

  14. Patrick LeBedis

    Why doesn’t the State focus on redeveloping and reinvigorating its myriad dying/dead red brick factory cities – Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford (all located with lots of transportation – highway, rail, airport – BTW), etc. – instead of conjuring up yet another excuse for Residents to leave this State in droves? High taxes, bad utility service, bad planning, and bad weather, aren’t the draws they once were! https://www.courant.com/business/hc-biz-connecticut-united-van-lines-survey-20210104-ntef3vxd55aurnv5t4vrlviihy-story.html

  15. Matt Mandell I hope you dont mind if I use the language in your post for my email to the list Cathy Walsh provided

  16. Michael Dinshaw

    In response to some of the comments, Larry Weisman has made substantial contributions to Westport over many years, and continues to do so, whether you agree or disagree with his positions. I appreciate his generosity of time to so many causes.

    Regarding SB-1024
    Having read a great deal on this issue, having read the bill SB-1024 and also having read the following:
    2019-AARP-The ABC’s of ADU’s, A guide to Accessory Dwelling Units.
    September 2, 2020-Town of Fairfield-Memorandum on Accessory Apartments.

    I am in support of SB-1024 because in my view it would:

    1. Allow home and property owners the flexibility to meet their needs on their property.

    2. Expand housing opportunities in Connecticut and encourage Accessory Apartments, Accessory Dwelling Apartments, Middle housing, Cottage Clusters and by default Affordable Housing. Some of it would be market rate, some of it would be designated as Affordable.

    This bill would allow home and property owners to determine what is best for them and their families needs, which is not always a Single Family Home. The needs of homeowners today are changing, and Covid-19 has increased the pace of those changes.

    There is a need for flexibility, the ability to adapt to changing needs which include: Multi Generational living, an increase in Single Person households, the needs of Seniors, Young adults staying or returning home, the need for a separate and private home office and so many other individual needs.

    The ability to have in-laws and special needs persons move in to a single family home is not always practical due to accessibility issues, a single story Accessory Dwelling Unit in the back yard solves that problem.

    Accessory Apartments, and Accessory Dwelling Units already exist all over Westport, and many other towns, some are used by the home owners or their family, some rented, they are already a part of the community.

    The likely number of these units built, based upon other communities that already allow and encourage them, is not as many as some would believe, one example is Greenwich.
    As per: Greenwich Free Press-September 13,2020
    “ There have been regulations on Accessory Apartments since the 1980’s but still there are only 100 of these units in town”.
    Greenwich also in 2020 revised their regulations with the intention of further enticing residents to add Accessory Dwelling units.

    Allow homeowners the flexibility to meet their needs on their property.

    • If property owners were allowed to”… determine what’s best for them and their families(sp) needs,” Michael, you, or I, could have a car wash next door.
      Land use regulations are in place to protect you from the “needs and desires” of your next door neighbor….get real, sir.

  17. I’m pleased to see that SB 1024 has provoked so much discussion – and controversy – about land use and the future of Westport.

    We have in common an interest in what our town and its quality of life will look like in the years to come. The exchange that has taken place in 06880 and which continues elsewhere should remind us of the importance of planning which has for too long not been a priority as the P&Z operated more like a Z, concerning itself with preserving the status quo and enforcement than it did with planning. Thankfully, that is no longer the case as the Commission has taken and is taking significant steps to restore the balance between planning on the one hand and zoning on the other. But much remains to be done, and going forward we all should bear in mind a couple that zoning is a dynamic exercise which is meant to change and adapt to the needs and circumstances of changing times; and, that we do not live in a bubble but have responsibilities to our neighbors in the region.

    Planning, consideration, generosity and inclusion will go a long way toward shaping the Westport of the future. So let’s continue to focus on, discuss, and disagree about these important issues.

  18. Jennifer Johnson

    I too would like to thank Larry Weisman for his efforts to explain this complex piece of legislation and its important goals. Too often the dialogue in Westport is focused on fear as a way of blocking change. It is abundantly clear on so many levels that Westport is a bubble of wealth and privilege where the status quo has been maintained through years of regulations. I love this town just as much as anyone else on this blog, but I do not love how we turn a blind eye to inequalities that are in plain site.

    This bill is an important step and I urge our legislators and all our local elected officials to support it. Yes, there will be housing-related transportation concerns, but they need to be faced in a thoughtful, constructive and non-fear mongering way too. It is our future. And our future, just like our past, needs to evolve.

  19. Westport needs more citizens that think like Jennifer. Let’s focus on the inequalities and less on the, ‘Where’s Waldo’ posts or the, ‘Days of Lore’.

    Thank you Jennifer.

  20. This thread illuminates a yawning gap between advocates of specific narrow self interest — articulated here by real estate agents, real estate developers and real estate lawyers — and the public’s interest in this “greatest town in America.”

    A few questions. May I ask how is it even possible to believe this legislation will have any impact on “inequality” which is what, exactly? Equality of opportunity? Or equality of outcomes? For America or who exactly? Are we trying to solve the “inequality” suffered by commercial real estate investors or owners of too-big houses that want to redefine the zoning terms and conditions they accepted with their property, because now “we” want them to seek private profits by converting to a multi-unit rental property?

    We all know that urbanization raises taxes on residential property owners, right? And we know urban density negatively impacts school quality, right? And we know quality of life suffers when a town trends to a city because real estate developers assert dominion over BOTH the P and the Z.

    Please avoid capitulating your town citizen/voter authority over Westport’s land use policy to a nameless unattributable force of law in the hands of the State that cannot in any machination serve the public interest of the citizens of Westport. Home rule is the right way to protect Westporters interests, not giving a permanent green light to unforseeable market and political forces that seek private profit in the guise of “change” in this thread.

  21. I agree with Jenny Johnson and Larry Weisman. I don’t know the intricacies of the bill or if it’s the right bill at the right time or the right way to accomplish the goal, but as a newer resident I welcome mixed use development along the river front and train station areas as a way of pumping vitality into this town and ensuring there are enough young people here to keep our shops and restaurants open for years to come, as well as places for elderly people who want to maintain their independence to live in a small apartment in a walkable area. Also, why is it OK to have no check on the number of 8-10,000sf houses going up on acre lots but then say no when developers want to build multi-family housing in commercial areas? That outlook seems provincial and an attempt to hold onto a past that is rife with small town thinking, small-mindedness and fear of change. Make way for the next generation and work with government and developers to create something that benefits the whole town.

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