Baby Step or Trojan Horse? State Zoning Reform Bill Passes the House, Moves to Senate

Sen. Will Haskell tells GMW how he expects to vote

State Representative Tom O'Dea speaks on the House floor where he voted to oppose the latest zoning reform measure

On May 20 Connecticut’s House of Representatives passed HB 6107 following months of debate over the need for affordable housing and zoning reform at the state level.

The debate included wide-ranging proposals, all aimed at “exclusionary” zoning regulations that have prevented developers from building more affordable housing and/or multifamily developments in many municipalities, and sparked passionate grassroots movements both for and against the proposals.

Opponents of the state reform efforts say current zoning laws don’t explicitly segregate racial or income groups, while advocates say that is ultimately the effect.

Often called a “watered down” or “compromise” bill after many revisions by House members, HB 6107 passed 84-59, with 84 Democrats voting in support, and 51 Republicans and 8 Democrats voting against it.

So what exactly is in the bill, what does it mean for Wilton, and what position are town officials and elected representatives taking on it? GOOD Morning Wilton will explain.

Key Elements of the Bill

With a catch-all title, the final amended bill is named, “An Act Concerning the Zoning Enabling Act, Accessory Apartments, Training for Certain Land Use Officials, Municipal Affordable Housing Plans and a Commission on Connecticut’s Development and Future.”

The bill maintains the authority of local zoning commissions when it comes to their decisions on the size, density and physical characteristics of any new developments. Wilton’s local Planning and Zoning (P&Z) officials will continue to consider factors such as traffic, safety, environmental impacts, and water/sewer capacity.

Here’s what’s new in HB 6107:

  • Accessory dwelling units (ADU) would be allowed on single-family properties without a special permit.

Wilton had already moved in this direction as part of its Plan of Conservation and Development, as have Ridgefield, Greenwich, and other nearby towns.

Housing units such as in-law apartments, cottages, garage apartments and other dwellings would be “as of right” to single-family homeowners and would not require a special permit.

Short of a mandate, the bill does allow any municipality to opt-out with a vote by that town’s governing body and P&Z board.

  • The number of parking spaces a town can require on housing units would be reduced. 

The bill sets a limit on the number of parking spaces a town could require for housing units. Studio and one-bedroom units would be capped at one parking space; two-bedroom (or more) units would only be required to have two parking spaces.

As with ADU, parking requirements are not being mandated to local towns; any town would have the ability to opt out of the parking requirement.

  • “Physical site characteristics” would replace “character” as a consideration by local zoning commissions. 

The change is meant to provide more precise language than the more subjective “character” when it comes to local zoning decisions, with the goal of ensuring regulations are applied more consistently.

Critics say the new language is arguably still nebulous and could spark contentious debate (or litigation) when municipalities have to define those characteristics.

  • The “Commission of Connecticut’s Development and Future” would be established to further examine zoning issues and affordable housing needs.

The bill requires the Office of Policy and Management (OPM) “to convene a working group to study municipal affordable housing plans and zoning regulations”.

OPM provides the information and analysis used to formulate public policy and assists municipalities in implementing those policies on the governor’s behalf.

While the commission is envisioned to have bipartisan representation (including legislators, state agency representatives, other stakeholders and experts in housing, planning and development, and the environment), the exact makeup of the commission is not yet known.

  • A form-based, model code system would be one of the new working group’s tasks.

Updating and overhauling building codes and regulations is a daunting task for any municipality. Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Commission chair Rick Tomasetti has previously said he believes a model code system developed by the state could be beneficial.

“The state can do a really good model zoning code that is form-based, with smart links, where local communities can then go adopt and modify that state code. That would be very helpful. That’s a good reform,” he told GMW in April.

  • Training would be required for each member of municipal planning and zoning commissions

Commissioners will be required to participate in four hours of training beginning in 2023, with additional training every other year thereafter.

At least one hour would be dedicated to affordable and fair housing policies.

What’s NOT in the Bill

Some of the earlier proposals discussed in the state legislature called for “as of right” multifamily housing development, with required affordable housing units, in proximity of a “main street” or transit center.

“As of right” effectively allows developers to bypass local planning and zoning regulations.

Those proposals did not advance out of committee. HB 6107 does not include any mandates for main street or transit-oriented development (TOD).

However, the bill does say that local zoning commissions would have to “promote housing choice and economic diversity in housing” and expressly allow development of housing which will meet the housing needs identified in the state’s consolidated plan for housing and community development”.

Furthermore, under HB 6107, a town would be required to file a plan with the state every five years demonstrating how it plans to increase affordable housing. Note: This is not what has been referred to as the “fair share” plan (HB 6611) which would have required municipalities to conduct an extensive needs assessment and plan for how to meet their so-called fair share of affordable housing.

Reaction from Wilton Town Officials

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice told GMW that since the elements that most concerned her had been removed, the legislation hasn’t been her priority.

Vanderslice said, “The bill passed by the House does not include the language or requirements that would have been most concerning for Wilton. Should it pass the Senate, I’ll then review its impact for Wilton with [Town Planner] Michael Wrinn.”

She added, “I expect it to be minimal.”

Wrinn took a similar wait-and-see approach, telling GMW he believes the legislation is still a moving target. “We have seen many changes to this bill but I am sure that is not the end of the changes. There will be a lot of discussion in the next couple of weeks before this is settled,” he said.

While still uncertain, Wrinn said any legislation has the potential to “greatly impact how and what we do as a community”.

P&Z Commission chair Tomasetti did not hesitate to say he hopes the bill does not pass in the Senate.

He points to the town’s significant steps toward increasing diverse housing stock, including affordable housing and accessory dwelling units, all accomplished without any directives from the state.

“We’re doing what we think is appropriate for our community currently with the Master Planning. We understand what we need to have a vibrant community. We’re doing our best to have diversity in our housing types,” Tomasetti told GMW.

While he was pleased to see the more “onerous” reforms were not included in the bill, and did not view the bill’s training or parking requirements as particularly burdensome, Tomasetti doesn’t believe the legislation will provide effective solutions for affordable housing and would prefer to see the state tackle other issues, like infrastructure and transportation, that could be more impactful in our area.

“The issues of affordable housing are not going away because of this bill. I think they’re taking the wrong approach,” Tomasetti concluded.

Wilton’s State Legislators Take Positions (Or Are They Flip-Flops?)

Rep. Stephanie Thomas (D-143) voted in favor of the bill, which appeared to many constituents as a flip-flop on her earlier positions.

Thomas has described herself as a “vocal opponent” to the state-mandated reforms and testified in opposition to several of the measures being crafted in the past legislative session.

The day after the bill passed, Thomas put out a statement defending her vote. Essentially, with the more controversial “as of right” and “fair share” concepts eliminated from the bill, Thomas did not feel HB 6107 crossed the line of infringing on local control. As the various proposals took shape, Thomas said, “I was perfectly willing to vote no on the resulting bill, but in consultation with the three towns in the district, everything we asked for was modified.”

State Rep. Stephanie Thomas speaks in the House of Representatives

GMW pressed Thomas on whether her support for HB 6107 was a broken promise. She responded, “I have said from the outset that I don’t believe the same proposals can be uniformly applied across the diversity of Connecticut’s towns and cities. Each municipality is likely to have different needs and different opportunities and will therefore need a different strategy. I still believe these things to be true and HB 6107 allows municipalities to shape their own plans.”

She added, “I believe [HB 6107] is a baby step on what I hope will be a more thoughtful, less political, long-term assessment and process to develop strong, 21st century communities in Connecticut, with the understanding that every community will choose to follow a different path.”

Thomas was referring to the study commission that would be established by the bill, something she believes will result in more data-driven vetting of ideas for future reforms.

“HB 6107 also requires the state to study various issues ancillary to zoning,” she said. “Without study and assessment, we remain stagnant and don’t progress in either direction. I believe that data is the best way to ensure that only the proposals with the most merit make it all the way through the process.”

On the other side of the aisle from Thomas, Rep. Tom O’Dea (R-125) voted against the bill, and subsequently put out a strong statement about his opposition.

“I am deeply disappointed to see this legislation pass because it opens the door to more top-down, state-mandate[d] control over local zoning commissions and town governments,” he said in the statement.

The statement went on to say that O’Dea views Wilton and New Canaan as “leaders in providing affordable housing options.”

GMW questioned O’Dea on that point, given the fact that Wilton currently has a very low percentage of affordable housing units. He alluded to a number of approved and pending developments in Wilton, along with his observation of Wilton town leaders’ interest in pursuing TOD opportunities, but cited more concrete numbers from New Canaan, where he said, “New Canaan’s affordable housing stock is up by over 200 units in the past few years.”

Rather than zoning reform such as HB 6107, O’Dea believes in funding more incentives, such as through the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), to support affordable housing initiatives.

“It’s expensive to build affordable housing. Legislation out of Hartford mandating anything is not the answer,” he said, while also conceding, “If you rely on the private sector alone to build affordable housing, it’s not going to happen, because it’s too expensive.”

While the bill is more palatable to O’Dea with the concessions that were achieved, he still feels it misses the mark and could be followed by more aggressive efforts.

“Thankfully we were able to negotiate an opt-out, so that the most egregious parts of this bill are not mandated. But I would say a better answer to creating more affordable housing in Fairfield County is incentivizing transit-oriented development, not mandating accessory units throughout a town,” he said.

O’Dea continued, “We argued hard … and many of the bad parts were eliminated. However, this is [the Democrats’] first step. The majority want to provide these zoning rules and regulations from the top down, and so that’s why I’m still concerned.”

O’Dea also wants to keep an eye on the composition of the study commission, in the hopes that it is bipartisan and not “one-sided.” He also would like to see more small-town representation in the group.

Sen. Haskell Weighs In

Sen. Will Haskell (D-26) told GMW, “I expect to vote for it once it reaches the Senate floor.”

Haskell called the legislation “a small but important step” toward more affordable housing, with what he called “common sense” measures (such as the ADU and training requirements).

As with Thomas, Haskell’s position is seen by some constituents as a reversal of his earlier statements promising not to support legislation that overrides local zoning control.

But Haskell insists, “This bill does not remove local control” and believes the “scaled down” scope of the bill is not inconsistent with his earlier positions.

“Many folks in our area were upset about the proposals considered by the Planning and Development Committee earlier this session. These bills were scaled down, re-drafted and re-considered. This is the legislative process at work, and I was pleased to play a role in that process by sharing feedback from my community with the leadership of the committee,” Haskell said.

He emphasized, “If this bill passes, towns would retain the ability to regulate zoning matters within their borders” but with more concrete direction on “physical characteristics such as height, setback, density, architectural design, etc.” that would “ensure that our laws apply equally to everyone.”

Polarized Public Reaction

Just as Thomas and O’Dea view the legislation quite differently, public reaction has been quite polarized, as seen in two highly visible interest groups.

DesegregateCT, an affordable housing advocacy group whose platform was reflected in a far more controversial legislative proposal (SB 1024) that did not advance out of committee, saw the passage of HB 6107 as favorable for its agenda.

statement on the DesegregateCT website said, “While not encompassing all of the DesegregateCT proposals, HB 6107 is a step forward and contains a package of zoning reforms crucial to boosting our economy, protecting our environment, and making Connecticut more equitable” and vowed, “the fight is just beginning.”

Groups like CT169Strong, which evolved from a group formed in opposition to school regionalization, agree that the battle over state versus local zoning control will continue.

A statement posted by the group on its Facebook page said, “The zoning bill passed by the Democrats in the House represents a foot in the door towards loss of local oversight of planning and zoning.”

The statement warned of “future encroachment on home rule” and urged supporters to “remain vigilant to keep zoning control local and in the hands of our communities.”

The group’s statement quoted House Minority Leader Rep. Vincent Candelora (R) as stating “a top-down approach does not work, is a mistake and that this bill ‘missed the mark’ on true reform to the shortcomings of 8-30g, [the CT affordable housing statute]”.

Thus, it remains to be seen whether the bill, if passed in the Senate, would make significant progress toward making a town like Wilton more affordable or accessible to more diverse demographic groups.

Whatever metaphor you’d like to use (baby step or Trojan horse, laying the groundwork or a slippery slope), the intense debate surrounding HB 6107 will continue as the bill heads to the Senate.

1 COMMENT

  1. Sen. Haskell says he’ll vote for the bill that was originally aimed at stripping towns like Wilton of our local planning and zoning authority because the bill has been “scaled down, re-drafted and re-considered.” Why not just vote against it then? That would put the issue to rest. Both Sen. Haskell and Rep. Stephanie Thomas campaigned explicitly on defending our local control . . . yet they never seem to oppose the Hartford majority’s efforts.

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