Grace Duffield / Hearst Connecticut Media
NEW CANAAN — As a preemptive action against anticipated state zoning legislation, Planning and Zoning Commissioner Chairman John Goodwin unveiled a draft of zoning rules changes he desires to share with the state.
His fear, along with a few of his fellow commissioners on the board, is the notion that New Canaan’s zoning laws could be changed by pressures to pass new legislation at the state level.
“We feel the way we get these things solved is we get help from Hartford, but you don’t get things forced down your throat from Hartford. It’s just not the right way to go,” Goodwin said.
The commissioners are concerned about efforts by organizations such as Desegregate Connecticut, that want to convince state legislators to change zoning laws, which in turn would affect New Canaan.
“There is a strong feeling among a constituency in the state of Connecticut, that Connecticut, from a housing perspective, has a fairly high degree of segregation,” Goodwin said at the Jan. 26 meeting.
Goodwin said he wants the state to create model regulations that towns can use to improve their own rules, and created a five-page Alternative Zoning Proposals document to contribute to that effort. He distributed the document to his fellow commissioners for their comments, as he expressed that he does not wish to speak for the commission without their full input.
Commissioner John Kriz raised fears that the new zoning laws would be similar to Connecticut Citing Council’s rulings on cell towers, which circumvented local zoning laws.
The council approved an 85-foot monopole cell tower on a four-acre zoned residential property on Soundview Lane, in September, despite strong resident opposition.
The ruling was “an example of one-size-fits-all, Hartford-driven decision. So, if you like the cell tower legislation you may really, really like Hartford-driven statewide zoning rules,” Kriz said.
“This whole effort seems to be a solution looking for a problem, am I wrong?” Commissioner Daniel Radman said. “Are they (present regulation) so deficient and so one-sided that we need to now reinvent the entire vocabulary of zoning for the state?”
Commissioner Arthur Casavant told his peers that according to his research, “Even though a fair amount of units are built every year, the number of units of affordable housing has actually declined in each of the last five years.”
Goodwin tried to explain to the commissioners the views of those who wish to change the zoning laws. He told the group he had been researching the topic and meeting with an informal group of fellow planning and zoning chairmen in the area.
“I have done a lot of listening. I have listened to multiple sides on issues that are being debated,” Goodwin said.
Goodwin cited some zoning terms that impede inclusiveness.
“One of them is special permits, and the argument on special permits is that it keeps affordable housing developments out of town,” Goodwin explained.
Special permits can be given to a developer for projects that do not conform to a municipality’s zoning requirements. The statutes require public hearings to obtain these approvals, which allows area residents who oppose the project to voice their opposition.
Goodwin, however, is not convinced special permits prevented building in New Canaan.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if 95 percent of special permits in New Canaan have been approved,” he said.
The term “community character” in zoning regulations is also considered to create exclusionary housing practices, he said.
“The concept of ‘community character’ is not a weapon of segregation, it’s simply a part of (a) long-term plan,” Goodwin told his fellow commissioners.
“We have historic towns, with historic downtowns like we have, which we are very proud of, that we like to preserve. These are very important issues, and that central legislation regarding transit corridors and so forth may not be very sensitive to,” said Kriz.
New Canaan gets a bad rap, while “most other towns are looking at our affordable housing fund as a model,” Goodwin said.
The town has an affordable housing fund accumulated through housing conveyance fees and two main affordable housing developments —including 113 units on Millport Ave., and 60 units at Canaan Parish.
The New Canaan Housing Authority is overseeing construction to replace Canaan Parish with 100 units in two buildings while reducing the overall building footprint at 186 Lakeview Ave.
Goodwin explained that one of the new regulations considered by state legislators involves transit-oriented development.
“Some of the specific things that this legislation was looking to do is to have within a community where there is a transit station, in where multifamily units must constitute at least 50 percent of the area within a half mile radius of that transit station.”
New Canaan has two train stations, one on Elm St. and the other on Talmadge Hill in the southern part of town near the Darien border.
Goodwin said he wants to reassure residents to trust that the Planning and Zoning Commission is competent.
He also wants his fellow commissioners to weigh in on his Alternative Zoning Proposals at future meetings, in which he recommends the state create a model zoning code. He agrees that they must have a model zoning code, but it should be adapted to the town’s particular circumstances.
Then, “municipalities can choose to adopt some or all of the model provisions as part of their zoning code. This will save municipalities from the costly process of paying consultants when they would like to update their own code,” the chairman said.