Late last month in Fairfield, the Town Plan & Zoning considered two major affordable housing applications under Connecticut General Statute 8-30g, a law that was passed nearly 30 years ago by the State of Connecticut.

For background, this state affordable housing law is intended to encourage more affordable housing in Towns that have less than 10 percent of their housing certified as affordable. Under 8-30g, local zoning regulations governing building height, lot coverage, distance from other properties and roads, density and property values can be ignored. Instead, the sole criteria is a test of public health and safety. This means that unless public health or safety are proven to be substantially at risk from the development, the need for affordable housing takes precedence and ties the hands of the local officials. In just a single night, Fairfield's Zoning Commission heard two affordable housing applications which are both situated in the middle of dense neighborhoods -- one calls for 40 units in five buildings on a 2-acre property and the other is a 50-ft tall building with 20 units on a half an acre lot.

Throughout Connecticut, concerned neighbors who have been struck by the unintended consequences of 8-30g, such as flooding, traffic and public safety, and the massive scale which is out of character for modest neighborhoods, have packed zoning meetings in the hopes that commissions would see the implications with these developments. But these commissions are powerless because the law was made in favor of developers, not homeowners.

Recently, the chairman of Fairfield’s TPZ astutely and candidly observed to neighbors: “You have to know that we all struggle with this. It’s not a easy to sit here in front of all of you and to talk about these things in this way. For the neighbors and those living next door to this parcel, I understand that the prospect of having this structure built as close to the property lines as they have proposed, and as tall as they have proposed, it’s going to be a burden. A burden that you never anticipated and you never expected when you bought your house in a zone which had zoning regulations that you thought everyone had to comply with. Take it to Hartford.”

So here we are — four concerned citizens of different political parties and backgrounds, looking to our leaders to help.

The 8-30g statute was passed in 1990 with very good intentions, but it has resulted in damaging, unintended consequences. Certainly, increasing affordable housing is a laudable and a necessary goal but the statute has been hijacked by predatory developers and investors who have been able to game the local zoning ordinances by using 8-30g to supersede zoning laws, reap profits and collect tax incentives from developments that ordinarily couldn’t be built. Not only do they change the fabric of neighborhoods but they take land that could be used for open space and preservation of natural resources, wildlife habitat and natural flood mitigation. In addition, in Fairfield for example, we’ve seen many affordable housing complexes be clustered to one or two sections of town. Affordable housing should be dispersed throughout a community to ensure diversity and to ensure not one neighborhood is burdened with large-scale developments.

And legal protections relied on for decades no longer apply as developers have gotten better at using 8-30g to push through developments that would otherwise never be approved. In practice, 8-30g has tied the hands and removed the authority of local commissions best suited to determine what is in the best interests and general welfare of the community.

These two projects in Fairfield illustrate why the law has been challenged, mostly unsuccessfully, so many times. And the beat will continue to go on and on until there isn’t anymore land to be developed.

What to do?

The State legislature needs to be willing to compromise and be more open to solutions that reduce 8-30g’s negative impacts. In the meantime, Towns need to spend more to protect its residents and hire independent experts to present health and safety issues unbiasedly so that the Zoning Commissions can be fully informed rather than relying on the profit-driven developer’s experts. And concerned citizens, neighborhoods and environmental groups need to fully participate at all levels of government so that our voices are heard both in Fairfield and Hartford.

Editor’s Note: This article was submitted by Rep. Farnen and by Alexis Harrison, Co-President, Fairfield Protecting & Land Neighborhoods; and concerned citizens Heather Dubrosky and Kasandra Marshall.