Transportation is the connection between a people and the land they inhabit. It makes possible a myriad of economic and social interactions. In return, the land (by which I mean the number of people, how they are distributed on the landscape and how they use the land to maintain themselves and their community) influences both the amount of transportation needed to move people and goods effectively, as well as the location of specific transportation corridors.

Richard DeLuca

As it happens there is an issue in news recently the outcome of which could influence the state’s transportation needs far into the future, though the issue is not what one might immediately think of as a transportation problem. At issue is a movement to reform local zoning laws that is gaining momentum across Connecticut and even nationally.

Though once a mainly agricultural state, with a population spread out thinly across the landscape, after the industrial revolution took hold in the 19th century, Connecticut became a highly industrialized state, whose increasing population settled near factory jobs in a number of dense and dirty urban centers scattered over the state. In the 60-year period from 1860 to 1920, the population of the state grew three-fold, from 460,000 to 1,380,000. By 1920, a full one-third of the state’s total population lived in its three largest cities: New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford.

As a way to organize the growing chaos of city living, Hartford created the nation’s first City Planning Commission in 1907, and other Connecticut cities soon followed suit, New Haven in 1910, Bridgeport in 1913 and New Britain in 1915. One of the long-lasting contributions of city planning was the concept of organizing land according to how it is used, or zoning. Zoning typically restricted each parcel of land in a community to a specific type of use —residential, commercial or industrial— while establishing building lines and height limits to control the size and location of structures on each building lot. Though challenged at first, the courts considered zoning a legitimate expression of a community’s policing powers, as long as it was applied without prejudice to the entire community.

The Connecticut legislature endorsed zoning for specific Connecticut cities beginning in 1921, and four years later passed general legislation that empowered all Connecticut cities and towns to create zoning agencies to control the bulk and use of structures in their communities, as well as the density of their population. But it turned out that residential zoning, in particular, had a dark side.

By specifying the size and geographic location of single-family residential lots, towns influenced the price of houses built on such lots and thereby created neighborhoods of single-family homes economically out of reach for Connecticut’s minority populations. To make matters worse, federal housing and urban renewal policies enacted after WW II were blatantly racist. Low-cost, 30-year mortgages from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) made the movement of white city dwellers to the suburbs possible, while at the same time denying the benefits of the program to those who lived in portions of cities the FHA considered undesirable, a practice known as redlining. As a result, the FHA “exhorted segregation and enshrined it as public policy.” Together exclusionary zoning and urban redlining helped to create the city slums and economically segregated suburbs so common in Connecticut.

Today, a group of concerned citizens called Desegregate Connecticut is hoping to reverse this inequitable situation by promoting the reform of local zoning laws. Earlier this year, the group published the Connecticut Zoning Atlas, a compendium of the laws and regulations of over 2,600 zoning districts across the state. The atlas indicates that of the 3 million zoned acres in Connecticut, more than 90% is zoned for single-family homes where no special permission is required for construction. By comparison only two percent of zoned land allows for multi-family housing of four or more units. (Eight Connecticut towns do not allow multi-family housing of any kind.)

Recently, a group of Yale Law School students and civil rights attorneys filed an application with the town of Woodbridge to build a four-unit house on a parcel of land zoned for single-family use. The petition is intended as a test case to increase the number of multi-family, low-income housing units that can be built in towns where exclusionary zoning now makes decisions of that kind subject to special approval by the local planning board.

While this zoning matter might not seem transportation related, it is. A decision in the Woodbridge case that ultimately makes it easier for contractors to build multi-family low-income housing in suburban towns around the state would allow town planners to strategically cluster higher-density development in certain transportation corridors, where an increase in transit use would help decrease our dependency on the automobile for personal transportation. The difficulty of sustaining mass transportation routes in certain parts of the state is intricately linked to the scattering of population across the landscape as a result of the large-acreage, low-density single-family zoning so prevalent in Connecticut.

Richard DeLuca lives in Cheshire and is the author of Post Roads & Iron Horses: Transportation in Connecticut from Colonial Times to the Age of Steam.

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