Zoning reform must consider the character of each town
Speaking for the environment and sensitive pieces of land is something I’ve been passionate about since I was in my late 20s. Growing up Connecticut and then living in the Pacific Northwest for a few years, I’ve had the unique opportunity to embrace our natural resources from the shoreline and meandering rivers to the majestic mountains and trails in Washington State, and I appreciate the value of open space, wildlife, natural habitats and pollinator pathways. As a local environmentalist, I’ve also had the opportunity to sit at scores of local zoning and conservation meetings in my hometown of Fairfield and I’ve seen the value of when local residents make decisions on their land and wetlands. They know it best.
Yet legislators and community organizers in Hartford want to drastically change local zoning laws, and it’s right around the corner in the 2021 Legislative session. This group of legislators, along with a number of non-profits from one party, are denouncing Connecticut as one of the most racially segregated states, blaming this in large part on zoning regulations that govern most of our towns. These legislators and advocacy groups are demanding a solution that includes essentially a statewide takeover of local zoning laws which they believe will resolve the issue. But the changes being promoted would result in much denser housing without valuing or regarding historical districts, environmentally sensitive areas, and established neighborhoods of single-family homes.
Under one section of the proposed HB 5132, “An Act for Concerning the Reorganization of the Zoning Enabling Act and the Promotion of Municipal Compliance” for example (supported by an emerging and powerful lobbying group called Desegregate Connecticut who regularly meets with lawmakers), local zoning officials would not be allowed to consider the “character of a district” for particular zoning purposes which is currently in our regulations (Sec. 8-2. Regulations): Such regulations shall be made with reasonable consideration as to the character of the district and its peculiar suitability for particular uses and with a view to conserving the value of buildings and encouraging the most appropriate use of land throughout such municipality.
Today, considering “character of the district” in land use decisions continues to be fundamental as towns modify their plans and zoning regulations. By eliminating this language, our zoning boards will no longer be allowed to consider the existing built environment and the “character of the district” when they render decisions. This won’t be good for our communities.
According to the Connecticut Preservation Action (CPA) group, with the protections provided by section 8-30g for affordable housing, HB 5132’s proposed elimination of “Character of the District” is unnecessary for promoting affordable housing. Also noted by the CPA, the bill would have the unintended consequence of providing a path for developers to sue towns for considering the character of the district when determining where industrial and commercial uses should be located in their municipality.
I do not question that zoning and public housing programs in the U.S. have an ugly legacy, dating back to the New Deal which segregated races, putting the disadvantaged in the cities and more affluent into the suburbs. However, there can’t be one blanket solution and it needs to be approached in a bi-partisan way with multiple stakeholders at the table, not just affordable housing groups.
Environmentalists, zoning and municipal officials, housing leaders and legislators need to work together to find the right solution to create more housing opportunities.
Our 169 towns are all unique, and a one-size does not fit all when it comes zoning laws. If this were to happen, those controlling local zoning would no longer be accountable to the residents of the towns they would be affecting. When you make change to zoning laws, they are long-lasting, and they will have long-term effects on a community from an environmentalist standpoint to economic and infrastructure issues. Land is finite and unique and what we do with it has lasting implications that impacts generations. When municipalities no longer have control of their land, they lose the power to protect it.
As an environmentalist and local neighborhood advocate, I would like to be part of the conversation, as should any concerned citizen who will be affected by these massive changes to our zoning laws. There are a myriad of creative solutions to achieve the goal of expanding housing diversity while retaining local control. These should all be studied and explored to maintain local control of our land.
Alexis Harrison lives in Fairfield.
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