PO Box 163, Fairfield CT 06824

Local zoning advocates push back ahead of public hearing on “live work ride”

by Marc E. Fitch March 15, 2023

Lawmakers and local officials pushed back against Connecticut’s affordable housing statute 8-30g and against proposals at the Capitol that would override local zoning authority during a press conference hosted by the group CT169 Strong, a nonprofit organization dedicated to maintaining local zoning control. 

Senators Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, and Jeffrey Gordon, R-Woodstock, and Rep. Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan, said the 8-30g affordable housing law, which allows developers the ability to challenge local zoning decisions if less than 10 percent of the town’s housing stock is deemed affordable, needs reform so that towns can work with the state to develop more housing.

“That involves making sure towns are credited for and therefore can promote all forms of affordable housing, not just government housing,” Fazio said. “And that the towns have more flexibility when there is set-aside development, private, affordable development under 8-30g, in order to ensure it fits the preferences and specifications of towns and cities.”

“The way that the state is running its affordable housing efforts through 8-30g are way outdated and antiquated and really do need a big reform,” Gordon said. “But the reform is not to do a top-down approach, one size fits all method coming from the state onto the towns telling them what to do when a lot of the bureaucrats from the state haven’t even been to those towns.”

“There is no dispute that 8-30g has not worked as drafted,” O’Dea said. “New Canaan has doubled its affordable housing stock and has renovated all of it within the last eight to ten years and all of that has come by the municipality doing the work. There has been no private building of affordable housing by builders in over 20 years.”

The press conference was held ahead of a public hearing before the legislature’s Planning and Development Committee which heard testimony on An Act Concerning Qualifying Transit-Oriented Communities – dubbed Work, Live, Ride – which has been heavily pushed by groups pushing for more housing, including Desegregate CT. 

The legislation would tie discretionary state grant funding to the development of higher-density housing with a certain percentage of deed-restricted affordable housing. The bill applies to districts with bus and rail transit stations, but also to towns adjacent to transit-oriented districts and revises the necessary parking area for multi-unit dwellings as, presumably, the residents would have greater access to bus and rail transportation and less need for cars.

However, multiple lawmakers and those submitting testimony said the use of discretionary grant funding amounted to a “stick” by which to force municipalities to opt-in to transit-oriented development.

While potential changes would affect nearly every municipality in Connecticut, zoning overhaul efforts have largely been focused on Fairfield County and wealthy towns along Connecticut’s coastline where the Metro-North train line runs. Those towns have largely pushed back against state zoning proposals. 

“We want to see a stop to so many of these efforts to roll back local control, which are almost difficult to keep track of, there’s so many different bills,” Fazio said, who is ranking member on the Planning and Development Committee. “But more importantly, we think there is a better way.”

Pete Harrison, executive director of Desegregate CT, said the legislation would enable zoning officials who have voluntarily opted into transit-oriented development to gain access to infrastructure funding and work with a state coordinator to execute those plans and disagreed with the characterization of the grant language as penalizing towns that don’t opt in.

“It’s really not trying to be a penalty, it’s just trying to acknowledge that in our investment dollars at the state level, we only have so many,” Harrison said. “So, if Town A is doing zoning reform and needs sidewalks, and Town B is not doing zoning reform and needs sidewalks, we think the town doing the zoning reform should get that money. That’s pretty reasonable.”

Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, said during the public hearing that there is a trust issue between local municipalities and the efforts by organizations like Desegregate CT in questioning the integrity of municipal leaders and their viewpoints. 

“We have a dynamic and we have a standstill. But I hope we get past that,” Hwang said. “We’re at this crossroad, people don’t trust each other, people don’t believe we’re listening to each other and that is a standstill I don’t think we’ll resolve any time soon.”

Harrison responded that conversations and debates around zoning issues have been very emotional, but he hopes to bridge that divide by working with local zoning committees. “I think very much we’re trying to meet communities halfway,” Harrison said. “Work, Live, Ride is us very much agreeing with you of the conversations can’t continue as it is.”

Sean Ghio, senior policy advisor for the Partnership for Strong Communities, said in written testimony that the bill “will accelerate the pace of home creation, increase household formation, enhance economic growth, and strengthen municipal and state fiscal fortunes.”

Ghio also argued that the lack of affordable housing near transit stations segregates the state based on race and economic status. “Too few Connecticut transit stations are accessible to low-and moderate-income households,” Ghio wrote. “Mixed-income transit-oriented housing can reduce the racial and economic segregation that continues to be perpetuated in our state through restrictive zoning.”

According to the Office of Policy and Management’s undersecretary Martin Heft, the Work, Live, Ride bill would likely affect “almost all” Connecticut municipalities and said, “the wide reach of the proposed program is concerning” because it will be difficult to administer and alter infrastructure investments that “would not meaningfully support high quality transit.”

Addressing the Work, Live, Ride bill directly during the press conference, with Matthew Mandell, Democrat member of Westport’s Representative Town Meeting, saying it was a “flawed piece of legislation,” a “gift to developers,” and it would essentially mandate towns adhere to it in order to get grant funding.

“Density does not equal affordability. The concept with Live, Work, Ride is to create huge amounts of density in order to change the market structure to then decrease housing costs to create affordability,” Mandell said. “What the theory is really supposed to be doing here… is to ultimately create so much housing that it buckles the underlying financial structure of the property values.”

“We shouldn’t be trying to hit the towns with the stick approach and threaten them with losing discretionary grants and funds that they need to support things they need like their schools, their roads and bridges,” Gordon said during the press conference. “We should be working with them, recognizing what they’re doing that works and facilitating as best as we can that effort.”