Connecticut Planners Take Zoning Reform Fight to the State

The Covid-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the importance of changing outdated zoning laws that have not kept pace with the times and too often contribute to segregation and social inequalities in communities across the US. Earlier this year, Massachusetts acted by passing a zoning reform bill that updates the state's land use law. Similar zoning reform efforts are underway in neighboring Connecticut, a state with a long history of exclusionary zoning. Several bills that aim to tackle zoning reform are in play at the legislature this session — and planners are weighing in.

Like other state legislatures, the Connecticut General Assembly is meeting virtually. Despite the change, 2021 is shaping up to be one of the most active years in recent memory on housing and zoning reform. Among the bills proposed to date are efforts to zone land near transit for multi-family housing; make accessory dwelling units as-of-right; and adopt policies to allow higher density development in transit areas or otherwise change the way housing development is planned for and regulated. The Connecticut Chapter of the American Planning Association (CCAPA) has testified and indicated support for legislation that adopts a holistic approach to zoning, housing, and land use reform. While some of the proposals hit the mark, others have the opportunity for improvement.

Here is a look at the legislation catching our attention:

AN ACT CONCERNING ZONING AUTHORITY, CERTAIN DESIGN GUIDELINES, QUALIFICATIONS OF CERTAIN LAND USE OFFICIALS AND CERTAIN SEWAGE DISPOSAL SYSTEMS (SB 1024)

This bill would require local officials to zone at least half the land within a half mile radius of the town's main train station for multi-family housing. Developments built with more than 10 units would be required to set aside 10 percent of new units for affordable housing for low-income residents. S.B. 1024 would also approve more housing production and legalize accessory dwelling units (ADUs). This bill has passed out of Committee and will now proceed to full House and Senate.

This legislation embraces policy ideas supported by Desegregate Connecticut, a coalition focused on reforming state and local zoning laws that restrict diverse and affordable housing production. Desegregate Connecticut's work centers on seven policy proposals that aim to facilitate more equitable communities: permitting accessory dwelling units, transit-oriented zoning, reduced parking mandates, model codes for buildings and streets, commissioner training and housing on main streets. CCAPA has been a primary partner to Desegregate Connecticut since its founding, providing input and guidance from planners. While the coalition's proposal is the most prominent and controversial piece of legislation involving housing and zoning reform this session, it is by no means the only one.

Desegregate Connecticut released a first of its kind digital map earlier this year to illustrate how the more than 2,600 zoning districts treat housing.

Desegregate Connecticut released a first of its kind digital map earlier this year to illustrate how the more than 2,600 zoning districts treat housing.

THE REORGANIZATION OF THE ZONING ENABLING ACT AND THE PROMOTION OF MUNICIPAL COMPLIANCE (RHB 610)

This bill amends the zoning code to have clear, precise language; creates guidance on affordable housing plans; and, adds liability for towns and cities to abide to Federal Fair Housing Act standards by implementing a statewide compliance system. The bill also creates a statutory training for planning and zoning commissioners and would require towns to include affordable housing as part of their comprehensive plans. This proposal leans on a more moderate solution compared to the broad and comprehensive reforms seen in SB 1024. This bill is a reintroduction from 2020, where it was slated to be pass but failed when session was paused in response to the pandemic. It has a high chance of passing this session.

CCAPA strongly supports this bill, and recently, provided testimony applauding the legislature for incorporating feedback from last year's proposal. The new version addresses previous concerns; furthers fair housing goals; underscores municipal responsibility for the required affordable housing plan; and defines the authority for state-level oversight. This bill was modified slightly in committee, removing the increased density in transit-oriented development (TOD) areas and will now proceed to the full House and Senate for consideration.

AN ACT CONCERNING ACCESSORY DWELLING UNITS AND ZONING REGULATIONS (SB 1027)

This bill makes two changes to the code: It requires municipalities to permit accessory dwelling units, permitting them as of right, and requires a majority vote of the members of a zoning commission to adopt a protested zoning regulation or zoning district boundary change. The bill also provides for the definition of "accessory dwelling unit" to mean "an independent residential dwelling unit that is located within or attached to a single-family dwelling; provides or is intended to provide living space for one or more occupants; includes facilities or provisions for sleeping, food preparation, including, but not limited to, a sink and oven and sanitation; and complies with the building code and health and safety regulations.

AN ACT CONCERNING TRANSIT-ORIENTED DEVELOPMENT AND MUNICIPAL ZONING (HB 6570)

The purpose of this bill is to increase TOD with an affordable housing component and require a municipality's zoning regulations permit a greater density of housing within one-half mile of a bus rapid transit station or passenger railroad station. Specifically, the bill would amend law to "require fifty per cent of the area within a one-half mile radius of a bus rapid transit station or passenger railroad station to allow for the creation of as-of-right accessory apartments and residential buildings containing at least four dwelling units or mixed-use buildings that allow dwelling units, and not be subject to mandatory minimum parking requirements".

CCAPA testified in support of this bill, stating "CCAPA supports the overall changes of CGS §8-2 that clean up the flow and clarity of the statutory language itself. These changes have been introduced for several years and we hope they can be adopted."

AN ACT CONCERNING A NEEDS ASSESSMENT AND OTHER POLICIES REGARDING AFFORDABLE HOUSING AND DEVELOPMENT (HB 6611)

This bill creates an assessment of the need or affordable housing, and then allocate the need to planning regions and municipalities. The bill establishes a big-picture goal with measures for implementation schedule and enforcement but does not in and of itself make any direct changes. Expanding housing opportunities reduces cost burden across communities, this bill is considered the "fair share" approach and has been adopted in New Jersey. CCAPA is working to spread public awareness of this approach and provided testimony showing their support for the concept and goals of this legislation. This bill has passed out of Committee and will now proceed to be considered by the full House and Senate.

AN ACT CONCERNING ACCESSORY APARTMENTS, MIDDLE HOUSING AND MULTIFAMILY HOUSING (HB 6613 )

The purpose of this bill is to require municipal zoning commissions to adopt regulations allowing accessory apartments, middle housing, and multifamily housing. It defines terms, and permits 'accessory apartments,' 'middle housing' and 'multifamily dwellings' containing four or more dwelling units, as of right. CCAPA has encouraged legislators to consider adding local planning support to the bill.

Tackling racial and socioeconomic segregation in land use laws must start with smart reforms to outdated policies. While there may not be an easy solution for addressing the state's patchwork of discriminatory municipal rulings, a multi-pronged approach holds the potential to boost the economy, increase housing supply and diversity, and improve access to jobs, schools, and affordable transportation options.

Top photo: View of the Connecticut State Capitol. Getty Images photo.


April 13, 2021

By Isabela Dorneles