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Next Up for Statewide Zoning Reform: Connecticut

A proposed package of reforms working through the Connecticut Legislature would loosen zoning codes in a state traditionally committed to single-family zoning.
March 17, 2021, 6am PDT | Diana Ionescu | @aworkoffiction
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A bill making its way through the Connecticut State Legislature seeks to implement statewide reforms to local zoning codes, in a significant departure from the state's long history of single-family zoning and suburban development patterns. If approved, Senate Bill 1024 would follow a few states around the country, most notably Oregon and Massachusetts, in preempting local zoning regulations as a response to the increasing cost of housing and the exclusionary effects of traditional zoning.  

Among other changes, the bill calls for fast-tracking small multi-family housing (two to four units) near commercial areas through "as of right" permitting, which eliminates the need for public hearings and shortens the approval process to a maximum of 65 days for development meeting "applicable zoning regulations." According to the Greenwich Free Press, "the proposed legislation would require towns designate 50% of an area within 1/4 mile of a main street for 2-4 unit housing, and require 10% of any development with more than 10 units be designated affordable" through a policy dubbed "Main Street Zoning." 

SB 1024 also proposes legalizing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and eliminating public hearing requirements for home additions, requiring multi-family and affordable housing near transit, reducing parking requirements, implementing new training for zoning officers, and model codes that streamline permitting, set predictable expectations for stakeholders, and lower costs. The provision that caps or eliminates parking requirements follows a 2017 decision by the city of Hartford to eliminate parking minimums on new construction. 

Proponents claim SB 1024 would expand housing diversity, increase housing supply, and improve the processes that hinder development. Desegregate Connecticut, a nonprofit coalition organizing support for the bill, argues that the proposals in the bill will benefit all residents and remove barriers to equitable, accessible, and sustainable development. Desegregate CT, led by Sara Bronin, who served as planning commission president when the city of Hartford eliminated parking minimums, has organized a coalition of groups pushing for regulatory reform as a solution to the affordable housing crisis. Groups like Desegregate CT are part of a growing, national chorus of pro-development forces who believe that single-family zoning restrictions have caused inequitable outcomes and contributed to a lack of housing affordable to low- and middle-income residents. 

According to Desegregate CT, the reforms proposed by SB 1024 would also save cities millions of dollars in legal fees (in 2020 alone, Connecticut cities faced 159 zoning lawsuits). Supporters say that directing development to areas near existing infrastructure will also reduce sprawl, help to preserve forest and farmland, and generate tax revenue and jobs.

Desegregate CT's Bronin praised the efforts of people in professions historically "complicit in the land use system as it exists today," telling Planetizen she is impressed with the willingness of professionals in the fields of planning and architecture in "stepping up to say they are in favor of reform." A letter signed by Brian J. Connolly, chair of the Planning and Law Division of the American Planning Association (APA), applauds the bill for its effort to "reform zoning laws to eradicate segregation and racism that has pervaded zoning law." The letter goes on to point out that the restrictiveness of Connecticut’s zoning laws, which makes only 2% of the state's land available for multi-family housing, "is an outlier relative to other states." 

The Connecticut Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) also submitted support for the bill. In their statement, the organization said that allowing “small-scale density" and the bill's other provisions would help "develop better streetscapes, design more walkable and bikeable neighborhoods, and construct housing that consumes less energy per capita." Addressing concerns about architectural character, the letter states, "we believe we can maintain a robust, beautiful built environment and provide for the housing needs of Connecticut residents at the same time." In fact, it argues, loosening zoning restrictions can improve the quality and appearance of the built environment. "Restrictive zoning compromises the quality of the built environment; deteriorates the natural environment by mandating sprawl; and thwarts good design practices." From the point of view of architects, the predictable standards proposed by the bill would streamline the development process, eliminate uncertainty, and reduce costs. The AIA also praised the proposal for introducing a model form-based zoning code, which the letter called "a modern, state of the art practice" that provides clarity and predictability for residents and developers. 

Opponent groups such as CT Residents for Local Zoning have launched efforts to challenge the bill, expressing concerns about the loss of local control over zoning decisions. Greenwich First Selectman Fred Camillo called the law dangerous, saying it would "take away from the architectural consistency of neighborhoods," as reported by Ken Borsuk in Greenwich Time. Greenwich Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Margarita Alban also opposes the bill, asserting it won't create new affordable housing but will pave the way for outsized large-scale developments. 

In a "marathon" Planning and Development Committee meeting this Monday during which hundreds of people signed up to testify both in favor of and in opposition to the bill, Danielle Dobin, planning and zoning chair for Westport, warned that provisions in SB 1024 would "suffocate efforts in affluent communities to create actual affordable units via private sector development."

John Guszkowski, co-chair of the Government Relations Committee of the Connecticut Chapter of the APA, told Planetizen that much of the proposal seeks to enforce existing statutes that already require municipalities to make provisions for fair housing. Despite concerns about the top-down approach of statewide zoning, Guszkowski also explained that the bill recognizes and accommodates differences between communities and is "absolutely not a one-size-fits-all approach." 

The APA’s Planning and Law Division states in its letter that local input in zoning decisions "is best channeled through the planning process and in setting efficient, predictable rules." The letter also denounces "maintaining community character at the cost of excluding those who cannot afford housing in their communities" and asserts that the bill allows local governments to maintain control over planning and zoning decisions. In some instances, the proposed requirements "stop far short of where the expert consensus on these issues lie, in favor of deference to municipalities."

After this week's public hearing, the Planning and Development Committee of the Connecticut Legislature will reconvene to take a vote on which bills to advance to the state House floor in the upcoming legislative session. 

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