Closely followed Woodbridge zoning case enters new phase
After six months of public hearings on a widely followed Woodbridge rezoning proposal, commissioners are to start deliberating.
Is multi-family housing in the suburbs a civil rights issue? Or a matter of water and sewer access?
Or is the idea of an environment-housing “balance” an excuse for avoiding necessary systemic change?
Woodbridge Town Planning & Zoning Commissioners will confront those questions next month as a lengthy dispute over the leafy New Haven suburb’s zoning laws moves into a new phase.
On Monday night, the commissioners held their final public hearing on a two-pronged rezoning proposal submitted by civil-rights attorneys and Yale Law School students looking to make it easier for developers to build multi-family affordable housing in Woodbridge.
The six-months-long-and-counting case has sparked the attention and participation of many people interested in the regional roots of racism and segregation, and in how those two social ills relate to municipal land use law.
The case has at times felt more like a court battle than a land use amendment application. Monday night’s four-hour virtual public hearing —held online via YouTube and Webex— saw each side make its closing arguments before commissioners move on to deliberations next month and an expected final vote by June.
The applicants—Yale Law School students, land-use attorneys, civil-rights lawyers, a developer, a planning consultant, and a professional engineer, all speaking on behalf of the Open Communities Alliance—implored Woodbridge to treat single-family and multi-family housing equally.
If two buildings have the same size, lot coverage, and other “bulk” dimensions that are in compliance with existing local zoning law, they argued, and if the only meaningful difference between the two structures is how many families live inside, then those buildings should be subject to the same type and intensity of administrative review by the town zoning commission.
Considerations around public health impact should be left to the public health code, they said, and should not be used as an excuse to keep Woodbridge an overwhelmingly expensive, single-family-dominated suburb with a small fraction of Black and Hispanic residents.
“Woodbridge should end its arbitrary discrimination between expensive single-family homes and affordable multi-family housing,” said Sean Yang, a Yale architectural school student enrolled in the law school’s Community and Economic Development Clinic. “All we are asking is for the commission to treat expensive housing and affordable housing similarly.”
OCA Executive Director Erin Boggs agreed. For far too long, she said, Woodbridge has “egregiously failed to comply” with state and federal legal obligations to provide opportunity housing for racially and economic diverse populations in accordance with the regional need.
“The commission now faces a stark choice,” she said near the end of Monday’s hearing. “Either continue down a path of exclusion and segregation, or approve our application and begin to forge a new path towards inclusion and integration.”
Orange-based attorney Tim Herbst and Woodbridge-hired planning consultant Glenn Chalder pushed back.
In their separate presentations Monday night, they argued that the OCA application seeks to foist a “one-size-fits-all” solution on the town by allowing multi-family housing in all of Woodbridge’s residential districts as of right, with no special public hearings required and with approvals contingent on professional staff review rather than on a commission vote.
They said a more “balanced” approach would take into consideration the each existing town zone’s particularities, including which have access to public sewer and water lines and which fall within public water supply watersheds.
“What the applicants are attempting to do is to take a square peg and attempt to fit it in a round hole,” said Herbst, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate who is representing a dozen Woodbridge residents in the case. “They are taking a one-size-fits-all approach to this that is fundamentally wrong.”
“Finding balance is the key,” said Chalder. “The [state-defined] goal of providing affordable housing was not intended to allow every development at the cost of damaging natural resources. Sometimes a different type or less intensive use of the land is demanded.”
He urged the commissioners to look closely at the town’s roughly 10 existing zoning districts and “seek a balance between housing, between the environment, between the community, and figure out what works best for Woodbridge.”
The suburban zoning commissioners now have 65 days to deliberate and render a decision.
Commission Chair Rob Klee said they plan to begin those talks at their next regularly scheduled public meeting on May 3.
While the various attorneys, planners, and student interns who spoke up Monday night offered their big-picture closing arguments on the rezoning application, they also spent much of the four-hour public hearing debating in detail more technical land-use consideration.
Chalder and Herbst took aim at how the applicant seeks to use so-called “bulk” regulations rather than “density” limits to determine which types of housing can be built where in Woodbridge.
Chalder said that nearly all of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities, including New Haven, regulate multi-family housing by density—that is, by how many residential units are allowed per square foot or per acre. The OCA application, meanwhile, seeks to allow multi-family housing as of right if a structure meets the same requirements in place for single-family housing around such considerations as lot width, depth, coverage, height, and setbacks.
He also said that it is unusual for any town to allow multi-family housing in every residential district as of right.
“Even New Haven doesn’t allow multi-family development everywhere,” he said. “They focus their multi-family development in and near downtown … They do not allow multi-family development in the single-family districts except by variance.”
Chalder added that New Haven does “not regulate multi-family by building coverage alone. They do not rely on building coverage. They rely on density.”
“Every town referenced by the applicant in trying to prove their point has density regulations and restrictions,” he said. “I would say that this is a standard. It is normal. It is customary for a community big or small to have standards.”
Yang and OCA-hired planning consultant Don Poland rebutted Chalder’s and Herbst’s concerns about the lack of proposed density regulations by arguing that explicit mentions of units-per-acre are not the only means by which a town can constrain how many people live in a particular building.
“Mr. Chalder doesn’t provide specific reasoning for regulating density other than the fact that other towns rely on density to restrict development,” Yang said. “Planners too often are focused on density limits spelled out in metrics like units per acre … Limits on density would only add to the list of requirements that the town imposes for no rational reason on multi-family housing that it doesn’t impose on single-family.”
He said that the application instead proposes to regulate density by the number of bedrooms per septic system, as controlled for by the public health code.
Poland agreed. He said OCA’s application does not rely solely on lot coverage to regulate density.
“The number of bedrooms per septic system, plain and simple, that’s how we’re regulating density,” he said. “Through the allowable number of bedrooms per septic system.”
He also said that a line-by-line comparison of the Woodbridge rezoning application to existing zoning ordinances across the state is most revealing of “commonplace exclusionary zoning practices across Connecticut.”
Adopting special hoops for multi-family developments to jump through while allowing single-family homes by zoning permit have led to the segregated landscape many Connecticut towns and cities exist in today.
And while New Haven does indeed have a small amount of land designated as single-family only, he said, the minimum lot sizes for single-family homes in the city are 7,500 square feet—significantly smaller than the 60,000 square-foot minimum lot sizes in much of Woodbridge.
“Even in single-family zones, the density in New Haven is substantially higher than in Woodbridge.”
Poland said that the OCA application presents an “equitable and balanced approach” by not “pitting one zone or neighborhood against another.”
By requiring all residential zones to allow for multi-family as of right, no one part of Woodbridge would be able to say that it was being unduly singled out.
And he circled back to Herbst’s and Chalder’s critiques about a lack of explicit density requirements.
“We’re not replacing density,” Poland said. “All of your zoning stays intact. All we are changing is multi-family based on the density of the health code. And why wouldn’t you use the health code? It’s there for a purpose. To protect health.” Including that of public water supply watersheds.
He criticized Chalder’s call for balance as privileging the “environment over the social needs of housing and affordable housing.” Relying on existing public health regulations, he said, should achieve an actual balance while not effectively blocking new multi-family affordable housing.
Woodbridge zoning commissioner Yoni Zamir dug more deeply into the density-regulation question by asking Herbst, Chalder, and the OCA applicant team about a claim made on page 16 of an April 1 letter submitted by the civil-rights attorneys.
That letter disputes Chalder’s previous assertion that density from multi-family housing could harm Woodbridge’s watershed.
“Our presentation on March 18 pointed out that Connecticut rejected the use of density requirements as a strategy to protect watersheds in its 2013-2018 Statewide POCD, and instead encouraged towns to adopt impervious surface restrictions,” the letter reads. “The state has recognized that residential density requirements are not an optimal method to protect watersheds because higher-density housing may actually reduce the impact of development on the environment by minimizing the amount of impervious surface per capita.”
What do you think? Zamir asked Herbst and Chalder. Is density indeed not a necessary threat to public watershed health?
Herbst conceded that, while density may not be the optimal method of determining watershed impact, it nevertheless should be taken into account when evaluating environmental concerns.
And Chalder said that the amount of impervious surface per capita would indeed be reduced with a multi-family development—because the number of on-site residents would increase, thereby reducing the ratio. “The issue is the size of the impact,” he said. And the overall size is still greater and more intense with denser dwellings.
Later in the evening, Yale Law School student Karen Anderson said that Woodbridge town commissioners cold “holistically” address limits on impervious coverage or mandatory storm water management plans and notification requirements to the regional water authority in another zoning amendment.
All of that is within their purview, and nothing is stopping the town’s zoning enforcement officer from reaching out to the water authority and state environmental regulators if the proposed amendment passes and if the enforcement officer has questions about a proposed development’s potential watershed impact.
“This proposal wouldn’t meaningfully change the type of physical structures that would exist in Woodbridge,” she said. Indeed, these very structures can be built as single-family dwellings right now. “The only thing new here is that more than one family could occupy these homes.”
“Our proposal is transparent, actionable, and a necessary first step,” she concluded, “for Woobridge to remedy its illegal and exclusionary zoning.”
This story was first published April 7, 2021, in the New Haven Independent.
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