Local Zoning: A Suggestion, Not A Promise

In the past few days, 2 major news outlets shined a harsh spotlight on Connecticut’s housing crisis.

The New York Times and Connecticut Magazine focused on major battles over affordable apartments in Fairfield, New Canaan and Greenwich. Westport was spared media scrutiny — unlike 3 years ago, when Pro Publica zeroed in on our town.

It may not be entirely luck.

Housing — who lives and builds where, and what it costs to do so — is an American problem. It’s particularly thorny in a state like Connecticut, where a centuries-old tradition of municipal autonomy (and exclusion) smacks up against changing demographics, diverging economics, and polarizing politics.

Westport officials — particularly the Planning & Zoning Commission — are often in the crosshairs of debates over affordable housing (a squishy term, for sure).

But in many ways, zoning decisions are no longer in local hands. To understand the current debates, it’s important to know who controls what.

At the heart of the issue lies “8-30g.” The innocuous-sounding state statute allows developers to override local zoning regulations if less than 10% of a town’s housing stock is “affordable.” For new construction, at least 30 percent of the units must be “affordable” to households earning 60 to 80 percent of state or area median income (whichever is less),” and deed restricted for 40 years.

Towns can apply for a 4-year moratorium if they can show “affordable housing equivalency points” equal to 2 percent of their housing stock. During the moratorium, towns can rezone, encourage mixed-income housing, or work with developers to build projects together.

Significantly, 8-30g applies only to housing built after the year it was enacted: 1990. Towns like Westport and Fairfield do not get credit for affordable housing units built before that date. Currently, only 31 of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities meet the 8-30g threshold.

Just as significantly, 8-30g overrides virtually all local regulations — height, density, location, anything really except public safety or environmental concerns.

Westport has had several 8-30g battles, including Summit Saugatuck’s current 157-unit development on Hiawatha Lane Extension (settled after 20 years of litigation), and a proposed 7-story, 48-unit project at the Wilton Road/Kings Highway North intersection (later scaled down, and defeated in court).

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. New Canaan is currently grappling with a plan to build a 5-story, 102-unit development — 30% affordable — that would replace one 10,000-square foot home on a 3-acre lot. The area is currently zoned for single-family homes.

A proposed 5-story, 102-unit project in New Canaan … (Artist rendering courtesy of Arnold Karp_

… would be built at 751 Weed Avenue, on the site shown in orange. (Tyler Sizemore, courtesy of Hearst Connecticut Media)

Westport Planning & Zoning Commission chair Danielle Dobin warns that a similar project could be proposed here.

“Do we want to plan for mixed-income housing?” she asks. “Or do we want developers to do it on any lot in town? And I mean any lot.”

She says that while residents in the Cavalry Road neighborhood have been upset about the aesthetics of a new bridge, they should realize that a developer could purchase a couple of adjoining 2-acre lots, and propose an intensive project there.

Under 8-30g, he would have every right to do so.

“There is a housing crisis in Connecticut,” Dobin notes. “Skyrocketing prices help sellers. But they make it more expensive to live anywhere — not just Westport, but everywhere.” Home buyers and renters in many occupations — teachers, police officers, firefighters, CVS and Stop & Shop workers, and plenty more — find it increasingly difficult to live any place.

“Westporters should understand that because of state law, local zoning is a suggestion. It’s not a promise,” Dobin says.

“When we bought our first house in Coleytown, we thought intense development would be impossible. Well, it is possible.”

Local zoning laws may not protect development, even in areas zoned for single-family homes.

Just how possible depends on many factors. Dobin says the P&Z is working to manage as many of them as they can.

One of the biggest fears of new development is increased traffic. Under 8-30g, that’s not an area of discussion.

To Westporters, who know that a 10-minute trip can now stretch to 30, it is a quality of life issue. To affordable housing advocates, it’s inconsequential.

Some residents blame new apartment buildings for increasing traffic woes. Dobin is not sure.

She cites apps like Waze, which reroutes cars from highways onto local roads; the change in school start times, which forces parents to pick children up themselves to drive them to after-school activities, and more people working from home, which puts more cars on the streets throughout the day.

There are many reasons for increased traffic in town. (Photo/David Waldman)

In the long debate over the Hiawatha Lane project, increased traffic in an already clogged area loomed large for locals. But 8-30g rendered discussions moot.

That Summit Saugatuck development changed forms many times. Originally 40 units, it ballooned to 187 when it became an 8-30g proposal. Eventually, the town and developer settled on 157.

“I see that as a lesson: Litigating doesn’t always leave us in a better place,” Dobin says.

She favors a collaborative approach, in which “developers work with the town, to plan right-sized projects.” That means, she says, “2- or 3-story buildings, with a mix of studios, and 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom apartments.”

Collaboration has resulted in such buildings as 1177 Post Road East, where 30% of the units are affordable and whose renters include older Westporters who downsized, a school principal and state senator; the Westporter, at foot of Long Lots Road, and Belden Place, a “beautiful” downtown apartment with 20% affordable units.

Belden Place is the site of new apartments.

Dobin says that beyond “affordable” units, market-rate apartments are still less expensive than single-family homes.

“These are our neighbors,” she says, citing a recent divorced mother who can afford to remain here only because of the new apartments.

Dobin notes that 1480 Post Road East, at the former site of a septic tank company, enjoyed the support of neighbors living on the private road directly behind. Neighbors also supported the current renovation of the Men’s Wearhouse property, near Colonial Road.

“Residents come in with concerns about height and traffic,” Dobin says. “If it’s within our purview, we can have a real say. Sometimes though, it isn’t.”

There can be tradeoffs. Developers can propose off-site affordable housing, as was done with The Mill on Richmondville Avenue (which included the renovation of a historic home on Riverside Avenue, where all the units are affordable for adults with disabilities, and most are deed restricted to asssist people at the 40% state median income level), and Bankside on Wilton Road (with off-side affordable housing on Church Lane).

136 Riverside Avenue. now housing adults with disabilities. Off-site affordable housing is part of the new Mill project.

The P&Z is approving projects like these for 2 reasons, Dobin says: “Because it is the right thing to do, and because in the state of Connecticut we have no option not to. The question is this: Who do you want to be in charge of the process, the P&Z or an outside developer?

“We understand reality. We’ll do our best to plan appropriate housing, in a bipartisan way that works for neighbors and doesn’t make traffic too much worse.”

Westport’s new apartments “are not massive developments,” Dobin says. “This is not Stamford. But if we don’t do this, there will be 8-30g proposals like Harbor Point, or Metro Center in Fairfield. Those are 10 or 12 stories. That’s massive.”

She adds, “If we don’t plan proactively for diverse housing, developers will do it for us. And they’ll do it with much larger buildings, in areas not designed for it and with no public transportation.

Dobin has heard complaints from residents who hate Westport’s new apartments. But, she says, “many more people tell me they understand what the P&Z is trying to accomplish. They’re happy to live in a community that wants to create diverse opportunities, that’s welcoming and inclusive. Most people I meet are delighted to be in a town that rolls out the welcome mat to newcomers.”

The national spotlight will continue to shine on Connecticut’s housing crisis. Whether the focus is on Westport or not is, in many ways, up to us.

(For more information, click here for the Connecticut Magazine story; click here for the New York Times piece.)

(“06880 shines a light on many issues, including housing and real estate. To support our mission, please click here.)

21 responses to “Local Zoning: A Suggestion, Not A Promise

  1. Thanks, Dan, for such an informative summary of a difficult subject.

  2. Great article! Thanks for the thoroughness of your approach and the reporting of Commissioner Dobin’s determination to be fair and inclusive.

  3. That was a great article Dan. So important that Westport stay on top of this

  4. My view is that the town overall needs to be more proactive about development – not just affordable housing. Westport’s plagued by spec builders tearing down everything they can get their hands on and clear-cutting lots to build enormous, cheaply-made, terrible for the environment, and frankly ugly (black windows, anyone?) houses that in 10 years will look as dated as a 1980s contemporary, often tearing down charming, historic homes to do so. The town does nothing. We have no aesthetic or architectural standards unless you’re in a historic district (unlike many towns, which do have architectural standards). None. And it shows – you rarely see the type of horrible development that Westport’s becoming known for in New Canaan, Darien, or Greenwich, where the construction quality and aesthetics are so much better. Most of the spec builders here don’t even use real architects.

    At least affordable housing – which really is middle-class housing – allows younger people, retired folks, and people who work in town the opportunity to live here. More people to patronize downtown shops and restaurants, more property taxes to the town, more vibrancy. The spec builders just make Westport more economically exclusionary, by taking $750k houses, tearing them down, and building $3m houses.

    Also happy to see the myth that adding a few hundred units of housing to a town with a population of 20k does not contribute significantly to traffic. Westport’s traffic issue is that more people commute into town than out of town, unlike New Canaan and Darien, which are pure bedroom communities. Identifying the real problem is the first step to solving it.

  5. Neither do we want the publicity of Atherton, California in the heart of Silicon Valley. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/12/technology/nimby-housing-silicon-valley-atherton.html?smid=url-share

  6. Fairfield is dealing with this as we speak. Developers want to put a high rise next to the sacred heart community theatre right in the middle of downtown. I have written our state representatives with no response. Greedy developers should not have carte blanch to destroy our towns. Why should they be allowed to ignore all zoning laws? I makes no sense. In my mind these developers should be more heavily regulated and monitored. The only way to prevent this is to change this statute. Crickets from our elected officials. I’m all for affordable housing but they are getting away with murder.

  7. I am astounded that a zoning commissioner elected by the citizens of our town to support and oversee our zoning regulations can now suddenly decide that our regulations are a mere suggestion. If property values were pegged on a daily basis as is the stock market we would suddenly be in an overwhelming market crash!

    • I believe you missed the point, Michael – or you are just looking for a reason to criticize the Commissioner.

      Local decisions can (in certain cases) be trumped by the State 8-30g law. If a developer has a project rejected by P&Z and then uses 8-30g to force through the development, the ruling will have been effectively rendered a mere suggestion. It is an unfortunate fact of the law over which the Commissioner has no control.

      Nothing to be astounded about. It’s been this way for thirty+ years.

      I appreciate the different concerns re: over-development versus affordable housing. But if any change would improve things for local communities (and those seeking affordable housing), it would be including pre-1990 buildings in the inventory of affordable stock. By not doing that, the State simply threw a gift to developers.

      Aside from that, I do believe Waze is a far bigger traffic problem that *some* construction. I see it some mornings when the stretch from Fairfield through Southport and Westport becomes a commuter highway: Harbor Road to Westway to Pequot to Greens Farms Road. While the change in commuter patterns due to the pandemic has alleviated a lot of this, Waze created routes like this, for those who want to avoid I-95 or Post Road.

      • Sorry Chris,
        regardless of the issues surrounding the discussion an office holder elected by the citizens of Westport to defend and enforce our zoning regulations made a mockery of them in a very untimely and unfortunate statement

        • Michael – Danielle gave us the truth. Would you have had her lie? Is that what you are looking for from our elected officials? Would you rather she “keep quiet” when there is information that is important for her constituents to understand?
          Danielle’s information gives us the ability to plan strategically, not wait until matters are taken out of our hands. I’d like to see more of that in Westport.

          • Sorry our Zoning regulations are embedded in the laws of the State of Connecticut. Chapter 124 of the Connecticut General Statutes contains the state’s zoning laws which authorizes municipalities to write their own zoning codes.. Local Zoning Regulations are not simply suggestions as was unfortunately stated.

            • I’m sorry, Michael, but if you don’t understand that the 8-30g law trumps local zoning decisions, I don’t know why you’re commenting at all.

              I don’t like it any more than you do, but I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t a fact, because it doesn’t fit my personal political agenda.

              • I made no comment about 8-30 G or about the discussion on affordable housing. I simply stated that our local zoning regulations are embedded in the law and that it was inappropriate of an official elected to defend our regulations to label them as merely suggestions. Very hard to be on a thread with people who refuse to objectively look at comments. Please don’t respond and waste my time.

  8. I’m so glad that Westport is required to open up the town to middle class people. I hope more people come who also work here—that they will have a major stake in the community.

    I’d rather see denser building near downtown and Saugatuck. The complexes spread along the Post Road seem to cause more traffic and are unattractive.

    Also, there seems to be a lot of underused commercial property in town. Wouldn’t apartments with balconies along Riverside be nice?

    Anyway, welcome welcome welcome to new residents who need affordable housing. It will enliven our town.

  9. Dan,
    Having been involved with building affordable housing (not in Westport) over the last 20 years, when I read articles form citizens who have a very limited understanding of this topic, it makes me cringe. Mostly because this is such an important issue for the future of all CT communities, yet it is so misunderstood. Dan, let’s have a public forum to discuss why programs that provide financial incentives to create housing are necessary, particularly in the more affluent communities. It is way more than just housing for teachers and firefighters. This has now become a campaign issue for this coming election and from what I have been reading, a lack of understanding is leading the charge.

  10. Dan,
    1) The term affordable is not at all squishy. It is very well defined within CT statutes and regulations. Could you be referring to the fact that Westport residents often conflate it with low-income housing?
    2) Danielle Dobin, Chair of the P & Z Commission is right to question whether affordable housing will really have much effect on traffic. Each one of those people (see list below) who come to work in Westport and travel from elsewhere currently create our traffic problems. For each of them who could live in Westport affordable housing, that traffic would be reduced. Getting that traffic off the road would not only be good for Westport, it would be good for the planet and the welfare of those who inherit it from us. Ms. Dobin is wise to be considering all the variables that must be considered. That is what strategic, long-range, sustainable planning is all about.
    The list: teachers, school administrators, grocery and retail workers, house cleaners, bank tellers and loan originators, chefs and restaurant workers, veterinary technicians, nail salon personnel, barbers and hairstylists, dry cleaning personnel, liquor store personnel, waiters and bartenders, nursery school educators, janitors and sanitation crews, fire and police personnel, librarians, town employees, and so many more.
    3) Westport has fought – literally fought – affordable housing for the 30 years I have been here. One of the costs that we must consider is how much we have spent in that time on attorney’s fees, etc. Sunk costs from the taxpayers that will never be recovered or provide a single unit of affordable housing. Why is it that we fight affordable? Is it that I can trust someone to clean my home but cannot trust them to live in my town? Seems odd to me.

    • Marla, let’s hear your view once a developer puts in a plan to build a 40 unit condo development on a 1 acre lot next door to your single family zoned lot. Million dollar condos, or so called Affordable…..bet you would fight then, and would want the town to fight it with you.

  11. John, please make sense. Where I live there are no 1 acre lots. My property is 0.21. And I answered the survey honestly: Yes, I would be willing to have affordable housing built in my neighborhood.
    I hope everyone who did proudly raises their hand with me.
    If we don’t take the reigns and specify through our zoning laws what we prioritize in Saugatuck then, yes it will be dictated by developers who are smart enough to take advantage of 8-30g. So let’s try something different – WE be smart. If we had done what we should have to provide the requisite affordable units 30 years ago, we would be exempt from 8-30g.
    So no I do not want the town to fight it with me, I want the town to stop fighting against what is right. I want the town to PLAN. Take a look at towns that have developed areas near transit hubs well.
    Find good examples of what makes sense. And yes, use our leverage to finally take care of our affordable housing needs. Sure beats what we’ve done for the last 30 years.
    The definition of insanity is to
    repetitively beat your head against the wall and each time expect a different result.

    • Marla, good for you. You are a better person than I am. Achieving the 10% is practically impossible. And if we did finally get there, Hartford would make it a 20% target. 8-30g is not about building more affordable housing, it is simply a cynical tool to
      Allow developers to get around local zoning. I’ve seen it up close and it is not a pretty sight.

  12. Wow John. If you say this is impossible, then I say let’s get different management for the Town. It is being done elsewhere. Your comment seems to say that those running Westport are not capable to doing what is done elsewhere. Do you know how much property the Town has sold off that could have been rezoned to allow for affordable housing? Do you know that we kiboshed a plan for senior affordable housing?
    Ask yourself why that is John. The answer is right there if you take out a mirror. Search your soul and tell me why you try to blame this on developers. IF THE TOWN HAD DONE WHAT IT SHOULD anywhere along the 30 year timeline I referenced, Westport would have no developer concerns.

  13. This comment will no doubt expose my naivete on the subject, but why can’t (or couldn’t have) the Town of Westport purchased any of the properties that have been built/purposed as multi-family housing over the years and build more affordable housing communities (i.e., to add to the affordable housing communities the town already has)? Is it too late to start?

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