Opinion: It’s time to put local communities and affordability first in CT

Supporters of CT 169 Strong’s Hands Off Our Zoning rally in Norwalk last in 2021.

Supporters of CT 169 Strong’s Hands Off Our Zoning rally in Norwalk last in 2021.

File photo

Last week, the Connecticut General Assembly’s long session got underway, and it is our sincere hope that our elected representatives work cohesively to move Connecticut forward. As members of CT169Strong, a grassroots group dedicated to informing Connecticut’s residents on zoning matters, we believe residents deserve better from our elected legislators, salaried housing advocates and paid developer lobbyists who have been proposing onerous zoning and housing policies over the recent legislative sessions. Residents deserve to be made aware of the details and consequences of proposed legislation, yet instead the contents of the bills have been obscured and constituents have been misled.

We fully agree with state Rep. and Majority Leader Jason Rojas when he stated in his Jan. 2 op-ed in the Hartford Couran t that it is time “to put politics aside and work towards real solutions.” But is that something he and his fellow colleagues in the majority party that have supported onerous housing bills and drastic “top down” zoning proposals are actually willing to do? We certainly hope so.

Rojas stated in his op-ed, “There is no ‘one size fits all’ state takeover of local decision making.” History shows that this statement rings very hollow. Here are the real facts:

In 2021, the majority party passe d HB 6107 , a bill that decisively began to erode the decision-making of local planning and zoning boards, most of which are democratically elected to office. Despite pleas from zoning professionals, planners, historians, homeowners, citizen volunteers, environmentalists and others, Rojas’ party did the following:

• The bill deleted state zoning provisions that: “prevent overcrowding of land,” “avoid undue concentration of population,” “conserving value of buildings”

• The bill deleted “character” and replaced it with “physical site characteristics” and local zoning boards cannot deny a project “unless such character is expressly articulated in regs by clear and explicit physical standards for site work and structures.”

• The bill prohibits a maximum cap on total housing units and prohibits a minimum floor area requirement.

• HB6107 mandated Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) “as of right” and limited off-street parking to a maximum of 2 spaces for 2 or more bedrooms units; 1 space for studios & 1 bedroom units. Municipalities were able to opt out before the end of 2022, should they not want to follow these mandates by at least a two-thirds vote of both the local zoning board as well as the local municipality’s voting body.

• If municipalities did not opt out, their local zoning policies were made null and void. This is clearly a loss of local decision-making.

Cities and suburbs in Fairfield County overwhelmingly opted out of the state mandated, “one size fits all” ADUs and parking limits contained in HB6107 (Rep. Rojas was a co-sponsor of HB6107).

For example, the 20 WestCOG cities and suburban towns within Fairfield County all have opted out of the state mandated ADUs rule (Newtown updated its local ADUs regs.) and 18 out of 20 opted out of the state mandated parking rule (the communities of Redding and Newtown did not opt out). This is clear evidence that in Fairfield County, all municipalities, cities and suburbs alike, prefer to keep zoning decisions local. They rejected a top-down statewide zoning policy that does not allow for future local zoning flexibility. This repudiation via “opt out” of “one size fits all” was bipartisan and cut across both cities and suburbs.

Rojas also stated, “Local leaders and community advocates must have a seat at the table but must also be honest and open-minded in working to find the most effective solutions.” We totally agree and have been asking for that during the last few sessions, sometimes even being mocked by Rojas himself on social media feeds on this request.

Yet HB6107 created the Commission on Connecticut's Development and Future with its four “Working Groups” that are stacked in favor of pro-development advocates and not favoring local leaders, economists, historians, environmental and zoning experts. Also importantly, reconsideration of the antiquated, ineffectual and widely derided affordable housing land use appeals procedure known as 8-30g has been excluded from any review on our state’s future. The appointed working groups have drafted reports that have not been shared with the public or presented for a public hearing. Are these committees seeking the “most effective solutions” and being “honest and open minded?” More likely than not, they are a means by which these legislators and paid housing advocates and lobbyists will leverage to further advance their pre-ordained agenda this upcoming legislative session.

Finally, we fully agree with the Moody’s article that Rojas has presented in his op-ed, that a critical way forward is the development of tax credits and state bonding for affordable housing. Recognizing that the state’s prior grants to the largest cities in Connecticut for affordable housing has had the unintended consequence of concentrating poverty in those very cities, expanding affordable housing grants to other municipalities and providing tax credits for those willing to allow affordable units statewide would be a welcome development.

It is time to stop the rhetoric around housing and instead actually address the failed public policies that have made Connecticut the second-highest taxed state in the country and 50th in funding coming back to Connecticut from the federal government. Federal and state legislators must focus on directly addressing the continued stagnant economy and outmigration of businesses and higher wage earners from our state. They must resolve to put students first and provide all families with real school choice — let the money follow the child so students can access a quality education in every district in Connecticut.

If Rojas and his caucus truly believe in “greater flexibility in the marketplace,” they would not create an onerous, business unfriendly, highly regulated environment that has essentially chased the insurance industry out of our state and hollowed out once great cities like Hartford, the former “insurance capital of the world.” Yes, we should all expect more and to be open minded. Far too much time has been wasted and our cities deserve so much better.

One size, top-down, state-mandated zoning policy does not fit all and Fairfield County zoning boards and their local municipal legislative bodies have overwhelmingly and resoundingly voted, on a bipartisan basis, to preserve their local zoning decision-making rights. It is time for a truly collaborative process to arrive at the “most effective solutions” for our entire state instead of pitting cities against suburbs, neighbors against neighbors and playing identity politics. Follow our FaceBook, Instagram and Twitter pages @CT169Strong and visit our website CT169Strong.org to learn more.

CT169Strong is the pro-homes, pro-communities, pro-municipality rights organization — informing residents and advocating for local planning and zoning decision making. Please join us.

Alexis P. Harrison, of Fairfield; Peter McGuinness, of Darien; and Maria Weingarten, of New Canaan, are members of CT169Strong.