Fairfield town, state leaders say pending state zoning bills take away property owner rights

Photo of Katrina Koerting

FAIRFIELD — Town and local leaders are at odds over a series of zoning bills working their way through the General Assembly.

The differing views on what would and wouldn’t work for Fairfield in these proposals were shared by town officials and the state legislators who represent the area at a virtual town hall this week, organized by First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick.

The discussion also pinpointed concerns about current affordable housing legislation not up for debate but still worrying to local officials.

Two new zoning bills especially in question are SB1024 in the Senate and HB6107 in the House.

SB1024 establishes zoning requirements for accessory apartments, mixed-use developments and multifamily housing, among other issues. HB6107 would reorganize specific zoning legislation and promote municipal compliance.

“Unfortunately the bills that are being proposed right now by the legislative majority is one where one size fits all and the state has a better idea than the local efforts we’re undertaking,” said state Sen. Tony Hwang, R-28. The bills, he said, take away some control from local authorities and affect personal property rights.

State Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-133, disagreed, comparing the legislation to school curriculum where the state sets requirements but the local districts determine how to meet them.

Matthew Wagner, chair of Fairfield’s Town Plan and Zoning Commission, called the bills “misguided” and said a better approach to helping people build homes and equity was not through zoning changes but banking reform and subsidies.

Wagner said the town is already doing a lot of the items included in the 1024 bill, including creating inclusionary zones, having an affordable housing plan and having an affordable housing trust.

“We are doing the hard work and that is why it’s so offensive at the state level to dictate to all towns this, as you characterize, one size fits all,” he said.

McCarthy Vahey said elements of the bills are important to help communities plan. The House bill reorganizes the zoning statute to make it clearer and more accessible for local commissions to interpret, she said, and creates a working group to help communities understand what it means to be in compliance.

The bills also codify case law, she said. Some proposals within the bills also require that communities consider the impact development will have on the Long Island Sound and feeding waterways; others expand energy and water conservation tools, she said.

State Rep. Jennifer Leeper, D-132, said local officials need to understand zoning, especially since part of future zoning changes could focus on replacing the 8-30g rule that grants developers powers to override local zoning laws if their plans create more affordable housing.

“I have viewed this process this session as our opportunity to go through what could be a viable replacement” for 8-30g, she said, “because I don’t think we’re going to be able to get rid of 8-30g without a viable replacement.”

While 8-30g isn’t among zoning law being debated in Hartford, it was a frequent point of discussion during the town hall and has generated a number of calls to Kupchick’s office, she said.

“I know so many residents don’t really understand it until it comes to their neighborhood and then they want to know a lot about it,” said Kupchick, who fought to repeal 8-30g when she was a state representative.

The state statute is designed to encourage affordable housing, but local leaders say it favors developers by allowing projects with a certain number of affordable units to circumvent local zoning regulations.

State Rep. Laura Devlin, R-134, said 8-30g brings in apartments but doesn’t help affordable housing overall because only some of the units are affordable and the rest are market-rate.

“It does so little to help incent, create or build home ownership, which we hear so much is so important for inter-generational wealth,” she said.

Kupchick said adding new market rate apartments increases the number of affordable units the town has to reach to comply with state requirements.

“We’re not even having a chance to reach the goal of the current legislation,” she said.

The town is working toward an 8-30g moratorium, she said, but it can’t apply for the moratorium until the already approved units are built and occupied. That gives developers more time for new applications to be filed under the statute, she said.

As part of the town’s move to expand housing options, seven developments have been approved under the inclusionary zoning provision adopted in 2015 totaling 892 dwelling units, 91 of them affordable. Of those, 367 units are complete with 38 affordable, said Jim Wendt, the town planning and development director.

“For a community of our size, with the number of dwelling units we have, that’s a lot of dwelling unit production in a fairly compressed period of time,” he said.

Officials also said they were unhappy that the town’s earlier work to add affordable housing to Fairfield was not counted toward the state requirement since only affordable housing developed and occupied after 1990 qualifies.

The town has had an affordable housing committee or task force since the mid-1980s and an affordable housing plan since 1988, one of the first communities in the state to do so, said Mark Barnhart, Fairfield’s director of community and economic development.

The plan was updated as recently as 2014, he said. More than 100 affordable housing units have been added since then.

A new town affordable housing plan update is in the works and should be delivered to the selectmen early next year, Barnhardt said.