Polarizing Issue on the Horizon: ‘Regionalized’ Housing, Planning and Land Use

There’s been a low hum under the surface of election season, about a topic that’s been overshadowed by COVID-19, and is starting to get more attention locally. It’s a complicated subject that will likely evolve into the same kind of polarizing issue as school regionalization was, especially when it turns partisan.

It’s the topic of housing, zoning, and land use control. It reaches into areas of race and equality; education; land use and town planning; regionalization and state legislation; and politics. And it’s something Wilton is going to be hearing a lot more about.

The topic was discussed at last week’s Board of Selectmen meeting, and our report on that follows below. But first, it’s important to briefly review some historical background and set the scene for what’s currently happening in Hartford.

From Wilton’s Storied History to Desegregate CT

Briefly, Connecticut has a storied history involving systemic racism woven into land use laws. GOOD Morning Wilton explored this at work locally in Part 4 of our series this summer, “Racial Inequality, Justice, and Activism in Wilton,” writing at length about housing in Wilton.

From racially exclusionary covenants to struggles with multi-family zoning changes and affordable housing battles, Wilton has had unattractive chapters in its history book, but there have also been efforts to move the town forward into diversifying its housing stock.

More recently, in 2019, Wilton adopted an updated Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) that recognized the need to diversify Wilton’s housing stock in order to accommodate all life stages, including its workforce, families with children, single people, and empty nesters. The POCD spells out the goals of providing a greater variety of housing sizes, styles, and price points and modifying the Town’s zoning regulations to encourage and incentivize more development.

Wilton’s current town officials are working toward doing just that, acknowledging the town needs more options. This past summer, Wilton’s Board of Selectmen unanimously approved a proposal to create a new Wilton Housing Committee. In addition, the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission is studying zoning reform along the Danbury Rd. corridor.

Renewed attention at the state level on affordable housing reform has come most prominently from Desegregate CT, an ad-hoc organization that formed in late spring to advocate for statewide changes in land use laws in the CT legislature–laws they say are a primary driver for segregation. Some legislators are also interested in bringing up housing reform when the assembly returns for this fall’s special session or next January.

It has created a “Special Session Agenda” list of ideas the group hopes legislators will implement. The list includes reforms like:

  • allow accessory apartments on single-family lots
  • allow “middle housing” (2-4 unit housing) in 50% of the area within a 1/2-mile radius of fixed transit stations and a 1/4-mile radius of commercial corridors
  • zone 10% of land in towns with 5,000+ residents for “middle housing,” multifamily housing, or mixed-use buildings
  • eliminate the word “character” from zoning laws; Desegregate CT says that “arguing something is ‘inconsistent with community character’ has sometimes become a code for racism and classism.”

Wilton has been one of the towns that Desegregate CT has its eyes on. It’s featured prominently on a graph plotting towns that require over one-acre zoning and above-average median income.

On its website, the organization writes about minimum lot size as a barrier to diverse housing.

“Some towns say that you can’t build single-family housing or multifamily housing unless you have lots of a certain size.

“For single-family homes, 60 of 169 towns require someone to have 1+ acre of land. That’s a lot of land for just one family! Requiring lots so big means that prices are higher, and you need a car to get around. (It gets worse: 24 of the 60 require 2+ acres.)”

In a weekly email sent Aug. 5, Desegregate CT applauded Wilton’s P&Z work to look at rezoning Danbury Rd:

“And three cheers to Wilton! This week, Wilton began a rezoning conversation to improve streetscapes and consider affordable housing options along the Danbury Road corridor.”

Board of Selectmen Discussion, Tuesday, Sept. 8:  Warnings about Local Control being Taken Away

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice brought the topic to the BOS last Tuesday. She noted the momentum around Desegregate CT, which has been holding weekly Zoom presentations and events in Hartford. The activity, she said, has drawn national attention.

“I was contacted by a Wall Street Journal reporter who wanted to interview me about their proposals. Wilton was mentioned in one of their weekly newsletters, which is where I think he got the idea of Wilton,” Vanderslice told the BOS, adding that she didn’t speak with the reporter because there hasn’t yet been much discussion yet in Wilton. “I’m not in any position to talk about it anyway.”

Vanderslice added that Desegregate CT has been endorsed by the executive board of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM), the “nonpartisan organization of municipal leaders” to which all 169 CT municipalities belong.

WestCOG (Western CT Council of Governments) is the smaller municipal group that Wilton is a part of and Vanderslice serves on the executive board. The leaders of the suburban towns that make up WestCOG are less enthusiastic about statewide zoning changes than their CCM counterparts from larger cities are. Needless to say, WestCOG is keeping an eye on the issues.

Vanderslice asked Michael Wrinn, Wilton’s Director of Planning and Land Use Management/Town Planner, to brief the BOS. His assessment of Desegregate CT’s agenda right off the bat raised a red flag.

“This is another one of those proposals that would take away a lot of the local control over land use,” he said, adding that executive orders made by Gov. Ned Lamont during the COVID-19 crisis to make things simpler have opened up the possible precedent for state control over other local affairs.

“I think Desegregate CT also used that as a point of information to say, ‘Well, we’ve taken away local rulings on some other things, and it did not bother you at all. …I think they saw this as a possibility of the state government changing some of the land use regulations,” Wrinn said.

The three main areas that the group has focused on are housing density, housing supply and housing diversity.

Wrinn called some of the Desegregate CT platform “extreme,” including the proposal of zoning 10% of the town for “middle housing.”

“That’s an awful lot of area and that’s a sea change of what you’d be looking at,” he said.

Some areas of Desegregate CT’s platform are things Wilton already incorporates, according to Wrinn, including accessory dwelling units (“I think Wilton does a very good job on,” he said). He added that not all 10 proposals are likely to be adopted, and others may be “worthwhile” for Wilton to consider on its own.

“It may be something where we’re looking for something that allows more people to stay where they are in town–the senior citizen with a big home on two acres. Can we have an easier process for an accessory apartment that they may want to stay in there? Can you have the kids start out in an accessory apartment, whether it’s in the back or in the main unit itself? So from that viewpoint, I think that’s an easy sell,” Wrinn said.

He also said that with the P&Z review of Danbury Rd., there would likely be many places identified as appropriate for middle housing, which Wrinn called “a positive.”

Desegregate CT is going to have an impact, according to Wrinn.

“They’ve caught the attention of the state legislature up in Hartford. So I think there will be something coming out of this. I don’t think immediately, but it’s something we have to have on our radar and think ahead, and I think the zoning commission will try to be proactive instead of reactive, if there is something that can benefit the town of Wilton,” he said.

Transit-Oriented Development

One Desegregate CT idea that Vanderslice thinks will attract attention is higher-density development within a half-mile around transit districts. With the Metro-North line bisecting Wilton and two stations located in key parts of town, it’s something she asked Wrinn to explain in more detail.

Most current zoning regulations require large density housing development proposals to go through a special permit process with Planning & Zoning. But Desegregate CT’s proposal would allow such higher-density developments within that half-mile zone by right.

“Special permit…gives the commission more discretion over some design elements, more discretion over the actual development itself. Whereas ‘as of right’ means if you set those density levels that they meet, [then] they’re [automatically] in,” Wrinn explained, noting that the density that would be legislated would likely not match what Wilton regulations currently allow. “A half-mile is a very long dimension. If you stretch it out from the railroad station, it includes a lot of land that could be high density and you may be getting away from… Danbury Rd. where you do have a sewer.”

The one-size-fits-all approach is something that would be difficult for Wilton, according to Wrinn.

What may fit at the main railroad station, Ridgefield Rd. is much different when you look up Cannon Rd., totally two different areas. So it doesn’t fit every situation that you have. You may look at the main train station and say, ‘Well, yeah, maybe it’ll make sense there.’ Even if it wasn’t a half-mile, could we get away with a quarter-mile from the station itself? Somewhere there is middle ground. That probably makes some sense because if we did want to put high density in town, obviously that’s probably the best place to put it. You’re close to downtown. You’re putting feet on the street. You’ve got the utilities there to support it. Traffic will not be an issue down there. If you go and put it up in Cannon Rd., [it’s a] totally different project, and I don’t see how it would work up there,” he said.

Wrinn recommended continuing to follow developments in Hartford and advocating for what works for Wilton.

“It’s something that we have to follow to see which of these 10 points that they have listed. How many more will there be, or which one of these will be gaining some traction? And then follow up on those particular points and come out strongly if it does create an issue for us. Because I think that would be a disaster–if you think of half-mile from Cannon Village there, it’s just extreme,” he said.

Similar to Regionalized Schools

Selectman Ross Tartell drew the comparison to the objection led by Wilton almost two years ago against efforts to regionalize Connecticut schools.

“I reflect back on Hands Off Our Schools, which all of us were pretty much involved with, which have a similar ‘coming from Hartford’ and, ‘You will regionalize and save a lot of money.’ Whether it was construed properly or misconstrued or understood, it energized all of Fairfield County because it put our schools and local autonomy at risk. Some of that same dynamic can happen here,” Tartell said.

Proactively diversifying Wilton’s housing stock is already a town priority, he added–it’s part of the 2019 POCD and the master plan being worked on now.

“You can use that as a motivation and so ride the crest on something that’s really good for the future of Connecticut. But if they become too ham-handed and overbearing on this, then what will happen is a tremendous amount of resistance. And it’ll be a lose-lose, not a win-win. There are ways for us in Wilton, especially, to win in this regard, because we’ve got some spaces, we’ve got some opportunity and we know we need to diversify our housing,” Tartell added.

Vanderslice said Wilton should get recognition for what it is working to do, rather than have it be legislated at the state level. “We did say we want more diverse housing and so forth. The question is going to be, who’s going to decide where it goes?”

3 COMMENTS

  1. As a professional who has worked in the nonprofit sector for decades, I am very confused around the Republican Party talking points about Desegregate CT’s plans. According to the Desegregate CT website, they are an organization hoping to “change the public conversation and push for reforms at both the state and local level.” That makes them identical to every other organization out there – from the Sierra Club to the Fairfield County Community Foundation. EVERY organization has a goal to change policies to help their membership. Why this is being conflated with actual legislation is confounding.

    When I am out door knocking and visiting voters, I hear a wide cross section of people clamoring for diversified housing stock – owners of local businesses, the recently divorced, seniors, and young people alike. Fear mongering will only lead our community away from solutions for these populations. It also negates the hard work that P&Z and the BOS have already put in to try to drive more business to Wilton Center and increase the tax base smartly.

    There is one platform being proposed by Desegregate CT that I recommend heartily – land use training and education for town leadership bodies! Perhaps then we wouldn’t see such knee-jerk reactions and could all work together to keep our district prosperous and attractive to incoming residents.

  2. Honesty and integrity should not be conflated with fear mongering. We, our communities, have nothing to fear in good sensible change. A draft bill, LCO 3508, actually does exist and it is authored by Senator Saud Anwar, the Senate Chairman of the Legislature’s Housing Committee. He is a legislator, not an organization, and his proposal is to regionalize zoning. I have had discussions with Planning and Zoning Commissioners and they have expressed to me that certain ideas in the draft bill are not unique, but rather have originated from common discussions among planners in an attempt to fit the needs of their communities. The fundamental issue here is: Who should be making the decisions for you? The senator, whom you did not elect? The special interest group, Desegregate CT, which you did not elect? Your local Planning and Zoning Commissioners, whom you did elect? I support local control of local decisions.

    For reference, I encourage everyone to conduct their own independent research. Here is a link to Sen. Saud Anwar’s draft bill: http://senatedems.ct.gov/docshr/pdf/Anwar-Bill-2020LCO03508-R00-BIL.pdf. Stay informed.

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