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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.)

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