Wednesday, March 31 in Hartford, the General Assembly’s Planning and Development Committee voted on several bills related to affordable housing and zoning legislation.
Ultimately, these legislative proposals, if eventually passed, would land squarely on the laps of Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Department and land use commissions.
GMW spoke at length with P&Z Commission Chair Rick Tomasetti and Director of Planning and Land Use Management/Town Planner Michael Wrinn for their insights on what the legislative proposals might mean for Wilton.
Wrinn’s Take: Tough to Predict, Potentially Impactful on POCD
“The toughest part of this is trying to figure out how much of this is going to go forward,” said Wrinn, referring to the wide array of different legislative efforts, touching on everything from cottages and garage apartments on single-family properties to major transit-oriented developments (TOD) around train stations.
But he sees one common theme emerging: increased density.
“I think what you’re ultimately going to see is an increase in housing density,” Wrinn predicted. “And then, the question is, does that increase in housing density increase the affordability?”
“Affordable” is one of those hot-button terms, and something Wrinn believes is often misunderstood when people talk about these legislative proposals. “[Some people] think that all of a sudden we’re going to have ‘affordable housing’, that everything that’s going to be created as part of this is going to be affordable. And that’s pretty far from the mark. This is creating a lot of density, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to create a tremendous amount of [housing that’s] affordable.”
Wrinn makes the distinction between “affordable housing” and affordability. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that all middle housing is going to be dedicated to and meet the criteria of ‘affordable housing’, but they could be more ‘affordable’. That’s the rub here, does an increase in housing density make them more affordable?”
In fact, Wrinn thinks it’s quite conceivable that some of that “middle housing” could actually command a premium price tag. “Some people may look at [middle housing options] and say, well, these are prime units, close to the railroad, and they’re downtown. You don’t have to [drive] anywhere. That’s the crux of [it] is trying to see how increasing the density is going to lower the costs and whether they become affordable.”
Wrinn noted that the topic of affordable housing, which is already governed in the Connecticut General Statute 8-30g, is not exclusive to the recent proposals. “The 8-30g [statute] still stays out there in addition to all of this [potential new legislation]. So no matter what happens, you still have 8-30g.”
Wrinn credits Wilton’s P&Z commission for being proactive in this area. “Clearly the commission is in favor of affordable housing. Every project that comes in, even for a pre-application, the commission raises the issue of affordable housing, [asking] how much is going to be affordable.”
Well before the new zoning proposals emerged in Hartford, Wrinn says Wilton was even “ahead of the curve.”
“We’ve got a tremendous number of affordable housing units already approved. They’ve had them back so far that some of them are up for expiration because, if you’re deed-restricted for that many years, eventually, they come off the rolls, [but] there’s any number of places in our zoning regulations where you’ll find that this is already done. And the commission is very, very proactive in trying to get these affordable units in.”
Still, Wilton does not meet the threshold that many cities and towns in Connecticut, such as Norwalk and Darien, have achieved in terms of the percentage of affordable housing.
Wrinn cited the 2 Hollyhock Road property as an example where the 8-30g affordable housing recently came in. “[The property] we just approved is a very good example of that. Very small units, different from what we see throughout the town. It’s in a newer, architectural design building. It’s wonderful.”
As with increasing density, Wrinn sees the focus of the new legislative proposals being on “middle housing,” which aims to fill the gap between very large, multi-unit complexes at one end of the spectrum (Wrinn used Avalon as an example) and single-family homes on a large lot at the other end.
In Wilton, that gap is sizeable. But there are a number of different ways to fill it.
Wrinn said he was very much in favor of accessory dwelling units, another type of housing often included in the new legislative proposals. Wilton has long allowed accessory dwellings but more recently removed special permits as a requirement. “I think they add a lot to the community, they allow someone to start out in the community, or even allow someone to stay in the community,” he said.
He also sees potential benefits for Wilton with TODs. “If someone were to come in and do a TOD around our main train station, that may not necessarily be a bad thing, depending upon how it was built, how it was laid out, because as long as you have the infrastructure there, you’d like to get people downtown, in Wilton Center. The more feet on the street down there, the better off we are.”
For Wrinn, the issue is what he called the “one size fits all” approach at the state level.
For one reason, the definition of “affordable” varies widely within the state. “That comes down to where you are. What’s affordable [in Wilton] is different from a state definition of affordable housing. That term means something different to everyone.”
Wrinn went on to say, “One size fits all may be a problem here. When you start to get away from Danbury Rd., you’ve got some very difficult building lots. You’ve got rock ledge, you’ve got a lot of steep slopes, you’re dealing with wells, [wetlands, etc.].”
Water and sewage are particularly complex issues in Wilton. Wrinn noted that in order to allow greater density, there would be implications for health department regulations at both the state and local levels. He explained, “The minute we get into septic, the minute we get into wells, all of a sudden, now we have the state health department involved, we have our local health department involved, who have to deal with that issue. So it’s not as simple as saying ‘you can put four units here’. Now we go down to the next level, if those regulations have to be changed, you’re going to have a difficult time.”
Wrinn suggests the new legislative proposals create a lot of uncertainty for Wilton’s planning, but that is not stopping Wilton from moving ahead in the meantime.
“The Plan of Conservation and Development was very clear in what the town wanted… That’s a local change to a relatively large area. If we throw in all of these other regulations that could be coming forward, we’re looking at all sorts of different things that were not envisioned as part of this Plan of Conservation and Development. So it [would] be a big change.”
“I think the key is we’re working off our POCD, which was a town-wide plan. It was just adopted a year and a half ago [with a] tremendous amount of effort on the town’s part and the zoning commission’s part, and now we’re taking that forward. So the plan [would] have some challenges if this bill moves forward.”
Tomasetti’s Take: Local “Idea Incubators” Work
Talk of the legislative proposals prompted a number of P&Z chairs in Fairfield County municipalities to form what Tomasetti called a “peer group” that meets monthly via Zoom.
“When this all started to come to the forefront, it started to raise some flags just in terms of what is it, are they really taking local control away? What does that mean?” he said. “We decided it probably would be a good thing to have an informal conversation.”
Tomasetti approached the first meeting with an open mind. “My first commentary to everybody was, I don’t know whether to like or dislike the proposals. Part of me [says] you want to solve housing affordability? Deregulate it and allow more housing.”
Tomasetti believes the simple supply and demand theory of economics would suggest that would bring down the cost of housing, but he says, “That all sounds great in a textbook, but it’s a lot harder in the real world where you have a market that’s relied on certain regulations for years, a fixed limited supply of land, [etc.]. So on the surface, I get it, let’s increase supply and that should help bring down costs.”
But taking the agenda beyond a discussion of inventory and affordability gives Tomasetti pause. He would prefer to keep political agendas out of the discussion and prides himself on the “apolitical” tone and bipartisan spirit the Wilton’s P&Z Commission has maintained.
And while he lauded the goals of some of the legislative ideas, he feels Hartford is a bit too far removed.
“As much as I think this could be a good thing, what stood out to me was the fact that you’re going to now do this at the state level… what do you [in Hartford] know about my community? What do you know about where my transportation is? What do you know about what my community has for other infrastructure, like sewer and water and gas and electricity and transportation, [and] the capacity of our schools?”
Rather than a top-down approach, Tomasetti believes this type of change is better from the bottom up. He used Wilton’s “dry town” history as an example where the town drove the positive change. “[Things] can change. And we see it locally in Wilton where things have evolved. At one point, it was a dry town and finally, people said, well, maybe just beer in a restaurant. [And] finally, liquor stores. That’s what happens at the local level. And I think that [local] zoning is a good potential incubator of good ideas. All you need to do is look at our zoning chair group to see that,” where Tomasetti says idea-sharing has benefitted towns in many cases.
“We are that incubator of ideas,” he continued. “If we have a good idea in Wilton, Westport could copy us. If we have a bad idea, they could say, hey, Wilton tried it, and they wouldn’t make the same mistake.”
He mentioned accessory dwellings as an example where Wilton has actually been more progressive than many other towns. He was surprised to observe how many peer group chairs were opposed to the idea. By increasing the Grand List in addition to the diversity of housing options, Tomasetti sees significant upside for Wilton by helping homeowners eliminate red tape and costs in the process of creating an accessory unit.
“We changed our regulations a little while ago [to eliminate the special permit] because we were able to look at what Ridgefield was doing for years [where accessory dwellings are ‘as of right’]. And Greenwich did the same thing. So Greenwich is now as of right.”
Tomasetti does see some beneficial reforms in the legislative proposals. One is a model zoning code. “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 said.
Tomasetti also likes the training component included in some of the legislative proposals, which would require annual training sessions for P&Z officials. “Education is never a bad thing,” he said.
But generally, Tomasetti feels the focus on zoning is somewhat misplaced when there are larger issues to deal with. “The state of Connecticut has some real problems. We’ve got high taxes, high cost of energy, high transportation costs, aging infrastructure” and other challenges, he says, that all factor into affordability whether in Wilton or elsewhere in the state.
He also noted that some of the legislative proposals face competing interests from preservation and environmental groups when it comes to land use and higher density.
Tomasetti also suggested that state legislators may not recognize all that Wilton has been doing without state regulation. “Look. Wilton did our Plan of Conservation and Development. We’re looking for density in a transit-oriented way around our Village District. We’re looking to have some redevelopment along our Danbury Rd. corridor. We were doing this three years ago before this all came to the forefront in the news.”
The goals were “multifold,” Tomasetti said, but notably included broadening the demographics of the town, with more housing options that would allow initial entry into the town as well as downsizing for longtime residents. Those broader demographics create a more balanced use of resources in the town, but also add vibrancy, Tomasetti says.
“We need to do more to attract younger residents. We need to also do more to retain the residents whose children have gone through the school system… it brings that dynamic to a community which makes it more vibrant.”
He also cited the approved mixed-use development at 300 Danbury Road as another example where Wilton took action without any pressure from the state.
Still, Tomasetti acknowledges that many towns like Wilton were historically slow to move in this direction. “We didn’t do this stuff years ago. We didn’t do real master planning. We didn’t ask really the tough questions,” he said.
That was apparent when an application to develop 183 Ridgefield Road, the site of the historic Schlichting house, elicited an uproar from many residents. Tomasetti says the debate over the potential development of that property challenged residents to have a discussion about high-density housing in Wilton. If not there, then where?
The 2019 POCD resolved some of those questions, and the planning is moving forward. In fact, Wilton is nearly ready to issue an RFP for the Master Plan. “We’ve got our own timetable here in Wilton. We did our POCD, we know what needs to be done, and we’re forging ahead,” Tomasetti said.