PO Box 163, Fairfield CT 06824

New Zoning Rules a Tough Sell for Desegregate CT in Westport

Sophia Muce, 3.1.2023

WESTPORT – Advocates of relaxing local zoning rules to encourage development near mass transit found little support from local officials who said their ideas would undermine local control, force conformity, and disregarded the needs of individual communities. 

Desegregate Connecticut, a nonprofit affiliate of the Regional Plan Association advocating for relaxed land use policies, presented a Work Live Ride proposal to town officials on Tuesday in an effort to win support and gather feedback before finalizing the draft legislation. The group said their bill would aid municipalities in meeting the state’s affordable housing goals, encourage walkability and the use of mass transit.

But local officials said that the current proposal was a poor fit for towns like Westport.

“I do think that the presentation that [Desegregate CT] gave minimized the fact that there is a real consequence and negative consequence to pedestrian safety, environmental remediation, general infrastructure funding for towns if they don’t opt in,” said Planning and Zoning Chair Danielle Dobin in call with CT Examiner.

Tucker Salls, Desegregate CT’s legislative director, told members of Planning and Zoning’s Affordable Housing and Regulation Revision subcommittees, that the group had learned from previously rejected proposals that tried to mandate high-density construction around mass transit across the state. Salls said that under the current proposal, municipalities could instead choose whether they wanted to participate.

“You do not have to build this district if you don’t want,” Salls said. “But if you decide to opt in, you will gain access to the discretionary funds through the new, beefed-up Office of Responsible Growth.”

Salls said the bill would increase funding for the existing Transit-Oriented Development Fund, and hire additional staff at the state Office of Responsible Growth who would assist participating municipalities in planning and financing transit-oriented communities. 

The one drawback to not opting-in, Salls said, was restricted access to discretionary funds. He used brownfield remediation – removing contamination to allow redevelopment – as an example.

“[If] you want to remediate brownfields, you’re going to have to do that on your dime – without state support – if you didn’t opt in,” said Salls.

But at the meeting, Dobin said the consequences of not opting in seemed to be harsher than Salls’s characterization. While an official text for the Work Live Ride proposal is not yet publicly available, Dobin said she had read a draft version of the bill which differed from the presentation.

“Everybody’s allowed to market things the way they want to and to make it sound more palatable,” Dobin said. “But I think it’s really important to be very honest when you’re trying to get people behind you.”

Dobin said if Westport were to opt out, the town would miss out on numerous state grants – including funds used to create sidewalks in areas where the Planning and Zoning Commission had already approved dozens of mixed-income, multifamily housing projects.

Matthew Mandell, chair of the Representative Town Meeting’s Planning and Zoning Committee, said he appreciated Desegregate CT’s switch to an optional program under the proposed bill, but said he agreed with Dobin.

“The lack of finances [for] towns from the state is more of an arm twist to do it, and it shouldn’t be,” Mandell said.

Dobin also questioned the affordability component of the proposed bill.

In his presentation, Salls told commission members the proposal would base goals for affordable housing in transit oriented development on an area’s “market activity” and “opportunity levels.” 

In Westport, Salls said, 20 percent of the apartments would need to be designated affordable to qualify for additional funding. But according to Salls, developers are not required to designate any units as affordable if the development is less than 10 units. 

Dobin said the proposal would guarantee nine-unit developments with apartments priced at $4 million to $5 million each in towns like Westport, Greenwich and New Canaan that have highly-competitive housing markets.

Dobin said the proposed bill “does nothing” to help Westport meet 8-30g requirements.

“We’re really trying to create more affordability, and we know that the luxury market rate it’s not gonna get us there,” Dobin said.

Dobin said that if Desegregate CT wanted towns like Westport to opt-in, the coalition would also have to consider the inclusion of special permits – which allow zoning commissions to regulate new developments. She said Westport’s Planning and Zoning Commission had an intimate understanding of important aspects like traffic patterns, stormwater runoff and wetlands.

“It’s incumbent on us to plan, and without super special permit oversight, we can’t do that,” Dobin said.

Dobin said that by requiring special permits, the commission has been able to approve over 650 multifamily units since 2018, and require 20 percent of housing in their transit hub to be designated as affordable.

“I’m curious as to why it is that you would want to strip from local communities the opportunity to weigh in with very, very site-specific comments,” Dobin said.

In response, Salls said the purpose of the presentation was to solicit feedback from local officials, and that the coalition would consider the inclusion of special permits and adjusting the language of the affordability component.

“Maybe requiring a special permit is the way to go,” Salls said. “We’ll talk it through.”

But two key concerns among Westport officials remained – a lack of parking requirements and environmental protections.

Salls said one of the main reasons the coalition wanted development near transit was to reduce resident reliance on cars. To that end, Salls said, municipalities should not be able to require parking for transit-oriented communities. 

But Dobin said that even Westport residents living in the transit-oriented community would require access to parking, because they needed cars to drive their children to school activities, to get to work and to the grocery store.

“We are not fans of the idea of creating opportunities for people to live in apartments in Westport and then saying to them, ‘unlike the people who live in single family homes, you don’t have a place to park,’” said Dobin.

Amanda Sayegh, the director of programs and resident services for the Westport Housing Authority, said that 95 percent of the residents living in the authority’s 221 units had cars. She said their proximity to transit was “neither here nor there” for residents, as most worked outside of Westport.

“Eliminating a car is not an option, and these are our [lower] income families in Westport,” Sayegh said.

Salls agreed that most Connecticut residents relied on cars, but that increasing walkability and promoting mass transit would help lower emissions and reduce damage to municipal roads.

“We’re taking some of those trips and we’re taking them out of a car, which we hope will reduce the need for so much parking,” Salls said.

But while reduced car rides could lessen emissions, said Wendy Batteau, a member of the RTM Environment Committee, the additional development along rail lines would only add to existing environmental challenges, especially along the coast.

“If you put densification along the train lines, what you’re going to do is put lots more pollution into the air, which is gonna go into the Sound as well as into our water aquifers, and it’s going to create a problem,” said Batteau.

She also raised the added environmental consequences for municipalities that chose to opt out of Work Live Ride, including lost state funding for brownfield remediation.

“The idea that you would prevent a community that wants to clean itself up and make itself healthier for not only its wealthier residents, but all of its residents – that seems inconceivable to me,” Batteau said.

Salls told attendees that Desegregate CT would consider their suggestions when creating the language in the final bill. He said the proposal was currently with the state’s Planning and Development Committee, and the coalition was anticipating that a hearing date would be set in the next week.

Sophia Muce

Sophia Muce covers Fairfield County for CT Examiner. T: 203 997 2780sophia.muce@ctexaminer.com