Lawn signs created by members of the CT Residents for Local Zoning coalition.
Westport recently began allowing homeowners everywhere in this affluent town to convert parts of their dwelling or detached garages into so-called accessory dwelling units without needing special permission from local officials. Pictured is such a unit.

Contentious legislation aimed at tackling Connecticut’s dubious distinction of being one of the most segregated states in the country was significantly scaled back before winning approval in the state House of Representatives on Thursday.

Language was scrapped that would have required towns to allow the construction of multi-unit housing around some train stations and suburban towns’ commercial centers, and towns would be able to vote to opt out of other key requirements.

The legislation would require towns to allow single-family homeowners to convert parts of their dwellings or detached garages into so-called accessory dwelling units, nicknamed “granny pods,” without needing special permission — but it allows towns to vote to opt out. The bill does require the volunteers who serve on local planning and zoning commissions to receive training in land use practices and legal obligations, though there are no penalties if they fail to do so. And the bill places limits on how many parking spaces a new home or apartment must have — but allows towns to vote to opt out.

The bill was approved after a 4 1/2 hour debate on a 84-59 vote. Every Republican representative voted against the bill. Eight Democrats who represent suburban communities joined them. The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration.

“It’s certainly not what I would’ve wanted. I don’t think anybody who’s passionate or an advocate on housing issues would want this, but it’s the nature of this place, having to take this painfully incremental approach to trying to address a very important policy around housing,” said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford. “By painfully, I mean allowing racial isolation and economic isolation to continue to perpetuate to the detriment of the people who are impacted.”

The legislation also forbids towns from requiring a minimum floor area that exceeds health and safety codes for new housing developments. This provision aims to compel towns to comply with a 1988 state Supreme Court decision that found zoning rules improperly denied a truck driver’s bid to build a moderately-priced single-family home in East Hampton that was smaller than the minimum square feet the town required.

Earlier this year, a compilation of the zoning codes in every Connecticut municipality found that dozens of towns are likely violating that decision. That research — conducted by Desegregate CT and its founder Sara Bronin, a professor a UConn Law School —  found that nearly one-third of the districts zoned to allow single-family homes still require minimum square feet, several in excess of 2,000 square feet, and about one-quarter of the districts that allow duplexes have such minimum requirements.

Pressure has mounted throughout the legislative session from those calling for a zoning overhaul so more affordable housing can be developed — and from those who worry such changes will ruin the so-called “character of the town.” Hundreds signed up to testify on the controversial reforms, and the public hearing lasted 24 hours.

Three hours into the debate over zoning reforms, Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey looks at Republicans, who have consumed the floor debate. Mark Pazniokas / CTMirror.org

Neither Republican nor Democratic legislators were enthusiastic about the final bill.

“Today’s bill is a step forward, but it’s really a step in a long road that we have to take to address the affordability needs of our residents,” said State Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield and co-chairman of the Planning and Development Committee.

“Incrementalism does happen in this building, and I think we will continue to work on it as the years go on,” said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford. “I am disappointed we can’t do more.”

“All of those [controversial] proposals … raise the question and raise the issue of where our state is heading from a development from a zoning perspective. And as we stand here, we need to ask ourselves: Are we opening the door to a state-mandated, top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to zoning?” said Rep. Joe Zullo, the Republican minority leader of the development committee. “Do we want to do that? Is it wise to infringe upon the unique character, the unique qualities of every single municipality in this state with a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach? … I know we probably all walk away from this a little bit dissatisfied.”

But Rojas, the first person of color to become majority leader, said there are consequences to leaving land-use decisions up to local control.

“The bottom-up approach has led us to where we are today, which is a segregated state,” said Rojas.

A spokesman for Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, declined to weigh in on the bill and said the administration is reviewing it.

Protestors listen to a speech at a rally for housing justice at the Deep River Town Hall earlier this month. About 70 people gathered at the rally, some with their dogs and with their children. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Meanwhile, housing advocates and civil rights attorneys were collectively disappointed.

Bronin, Desegregate Connecticut’s founder, called the provision that allows towns to opt out of allowing homeowners to open even a granny pod a “poison pill” and “is the same backwards thinking that has allowed us to be so segregated and economically depressed.”

Her team’s research found that only half the residentially zoned land in the state allows accessory dwellings without having to get special permission from local zoning panels.

“The opt-out provision for ADUs is going to hinder the effectiveness of the provision” she said. “An opt-out provision would perpetuate the status quo of a patchwork of approaches to accessory dwelling units.”

Advocates worry that now that legislators have passed this bill, they will be unwilling to take on this contentious debate anytime soon.

“This bill actually may set us back, because there is a good chance it will be taken as the legislature’s answer to exclusionary zoning for years to come. It’s not an answer, it’s an abdication,” said Erin Boggs, the executive director of the Open Communities Alliance, a coalition of civil rights attorneys.

Her organization has already begun to pave a path to get the courts to weigh in on whether the state is violating various civil rights laws.

The courts may be the only solution to force change, said Erin Kemple, the executive director of the CT Fair Housing Center, a group of civil rights attorneys.

“It is possible that the courts are going to have to resolve the issues, because it is clear that regardless of the statutory requirements, a lot of towns are looking for ways to get out from under the requirements,” she said. “I think that many people in Connecticut embrace the nickname ‘the land of study habits’ and lack an understanding of what is needed to ensure that all Connecticut residents have a place to live and have the opportunity to move and live in communities with high-performing schools and access to jobs.”

A rundown on how each state representative voted on the zoning reform bill.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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