State legislators in Hartford may be having a brutal time getting a budget passed, but last week there was one positive development in a different legislative area that directly impacts Wilton. On Monday, July 24, both chambers of the assembly overwhelmingly voted to override a veto from Gov. Dannel Malloy and pass legislation that offers towns some relief from affordable housing requirements.

It almost didn’t happen, but it did, thanks in part to Wilton’s state representative Gail Lavielle cutting short a European vacation in order to return to Hartford and cast a vote.

The law they passed–PA 17-170, An Act Concerning the Affordable Housing Land Use Appeals Procedure–was drafted to offer towns relief from an existing affordable housing law commonly referred to as 8-30g. Under 8-30g, communities with less than 10% of housing stock available as affordable were at risk of developers superseding town zoning laws to build larger, denser housing projects, as long as 30% of the project was affordable. If town planning and zoning commissions rejected projects as non-conforming to town ordinances, 8-30g gives developers recourse to sue in order to bypass those local ordinances and build it anyway.

Towns could apply for a four-year moratorium on 8-30g developer appeals, by showing some progress toward the 10% threshold. But reaching that 10% threshold was almost impossible for small towns like Wilton to reach. Developers typically designate as affordable only the minimum number of units required. So even though the number of affordable housing units increases, the number of non-affordable housing units increases by much more.

“The [8-30g] law is penalizing them for not reaching a goal that is impossible to reach. It’s been very, very difficult for the small towns around the state, and the mid-sized ones as well,” Lavielle explained. “For the last 15 years at least, all of us from these towns have been trying to modify the statute.”

The law passed last week eases some of the requirements on towns like Wilton, making it slightly easier to get closer to that threshold, and creates incentives for towns to proactively plan projects with more affordable units. If towns work hard at creating more affordable housing, they could actually get to a moratorium, and then be positioned to decide themselves where they want to develop it–near transit, in areas that can better accommodate dense housing and traffic, etc.. It also makes it easier for towns to renew their moratoriums.

The law does that by:

  • For five years, lowering the minimum number of HUE (Housing Unit Equivalent) points that towns need to get to a moratorium, from 75 to 50. (Points are counted differently than 1 pt./housing unit. Instead, they’re awarded based on the unit’s income level, location in housing incentive zones, number of bedrooms, or if built for families or elderly.).
  • Increasing the bonus points that can be awarded for certain types of units.
  • Increasing the types of units that can count toward a moratorium
  • Requiring every town to provide an affordable housing plan every five years. That’s a good thing, says Lavielle. “It works to help a town get its ducks lined up and be proactive about doing this so it doesn’t find itself exposed to 8-30g challenges.”

These incentives to plan more affordable housing are important because there is a sharp need for affordable housing around the state. “We’re not trying to eliminate it–you want people to live where they work; we have aging population, Connecticut can’t keep enough young people here,” Lavielle says. This recently approved legislation will reward towns for working toward adding more affordable units rather than deal with what she called a “draconian situation” that punishes towns for something they can’t achieve.

Governor’s Veto Almost Derails Effort

As Lavielle pointed out, she and other legislators had tried several times over the last 15 years to come up with legislation that would be widely acceptable, but often faced a split along urban versus rural lines. This time, the differences were worked out.

“The housing committee worked very hard, bipartisanly, to come up with a compromise bill,” she says. When it was initially introduced, it passed pretty overwhelmingly in both the House (116-33) on May 30 and the Senate (30-6) on June 7. But one month later, when the law was sent to Malloy for his signature, he vetoed it instead.

“It was a strong, bi-partisan vote, yet the governor vetoed it,” Lavielle explains. “He basically said, this weakens the statute, and that there’s no problem getting to the threshold of 10% or for the moratorium. He dismisses that–‘There are no worries.’ But we know that there is a problem, it is difficult, and it doesn’t really weaken the statute. It leaves the basic principles intact.”

Getting it passed was important enough of a vote that Lavielle cut short her trip to France. [Note:  There was one other vote that Lavielle returned for as well, regarding the contract for state employees.]

“This one, really, was on the razor’s edge. You needed two-thirds majority in both chambers to override a veto. In the House, that’s 101 votes–and we got 101 votes. If I hadn’t come back, it wouldn’t have gone through,” she says. She also notes that another colleague who was away also returned early, while a third had just undergone surgery on Saturday, two days before the override vote–and made sure to be at the state capitol that day. “I give him more kudos than I give me,” Lavielle laughs.

Impact on Wilton

Wilton will benefit from this legislation, as the town has already had one close call.

“Wilton has had certainly the most recent real 8-30g conversation (it never went to an appeals process but where it could have and was going to if they hadn’t found another solution) was 44 Westport Rd.. That was kind of a wakeup call, that Wilton was perhaps going to have to look at this and confront it and decide what to do,” Lavielle recalls about a 2014 situation involving a developer who wanted to build a 30-unit multi-family development on a one-acre parcel on Westport Rd.. The plan included nine units classified as affordable, which meant there was likely little the town could have done to stop the development from proceeding, thanks to 8-30g.

The situation was settled amicably through a land swap with the town. Wilton exchanged an acre of land near the train station for the Westport Rd. parcel, and the developer built the apartment building, now called Station Place, closer to Wilton Center.

Wilton obtained a moratorium following the resolution of the situation.

The issue of affordable housing continues to come up–most recently during conversations the town is having currently with the assisted living development moving forward at the former Young’s Nursery location on Danbury Rd., or what some residents have worried about at 183 Ridgefield Rd..

“I would expect it will come up more and more often,” Lavielle says. “This is certainly a favorable development, as opposed to an unfavorable one. It will be part, I’m sure, in how Wilton will proceed under the current moratorium and any subsequent one. These things can arise anytime a developer buys a piece of property, and if you can pre-empt it, and have a good idea of how and where you think affordable housing can work, it’s always helpful.”

Lavielle’s counterpart in the state senate, Toni Boucher, issued a statement following the veto override to applaud it.

“We did not eliminate affordable housing requirements from the statutes. We updated a 30-year-old, one-size-fits-all piece of legislation to respond to the fact that each community is unique and has its own character. Communities should be able to maintain that character,” she said.