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How one bike ride inspired a case that could upend Connecticut’s zoning laws

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On a sunny spring afternoon in 2016, Richard Freedman went on a bike ride through New Canaan.

The housing developer was fresh off a disappointment. He had applied to build housing for low-income people in Westport, but his plan had just been rejected.

As he rode through the hillsides that afternoon — where mansions with gated entrances were separated from each other by four acres and stone walls — Freedman wondered whether civil rights groups or developers would ever find a way to change zoning laws so that more than one housing unit could be built on these huge lots. The properties take up most of the town and largely shut out those who need affordable housing.

New Canaan is one of the state’s most affluent and racially isolated communities, and Freedman had been turned away from building affordable housing there a few years earlier.

“It’s obviously a public street, but you feel like you’re intruding on the private lands of an aristocracy,” Freedman, a resident of Stamford and president of Garden Homes Management, said about his ride through town.

Then, as he rode along Oenoke Ridge, he thought to himself that he could easily fit 10 separated two-bedroom apartments into each mansion.

“House after house after house, they’re the size of hotels. That’s how big they are. They’re bigger than some of the apartment buildings I own,” he said. “Then, it finally hit me: If the zoning lets you build a house that big for one family, why can’t you build a home the same size — for more than one family?”

When he returned home, he called Erin Boggs, a civil rights attorney who focuses on housing desegregation and the leader of Open Communities Alliance, and shared his epiphany. The duo then shared the idea with the fair housing development clinic at Yale Law School, and a coalition was formed to attempt to dismantle single-family zoning in a state with some of the most racially isolated communities in the country.

The idea was simple: Let developers build two, three or four housing units in the same size structure, as long as they meet all the other requirements for single-family homes that don’t need special permission.

“The remedy that they proposed is brilliant in its simplicity,” said Timothy Hollister, a land-use attorney who has made a career out of shepherding through the courts affordable-housing projects in uncooperative towns.

Boggs, Freedman and the Yale professors and law students had a long list of towns in Connecticut that essentially prohibit anything but single-family homes from being built. When it came time for the team to decide which town’s zoning laws to challenge, they focused on one that stood out in stark contrast to its neighboring city: Woodbridge.

In Woodbridge, one out of every 79 housing units is occupied by a low-income resident, compared to one in three in New Haven. The share of Black or Latino residents living in this suburb is one-third the share living throughout the state. In the last 30 years, just three two-unit homes have received a permit to be built, compared to 281 single-family homes.

This outcome is by design, the lawyers first argued nearly eight months ago when they asked the town’s planning and zoning commission to scrap its single-family zoning and allow them to build a four-unit house on a 1.5 acre lot that is zoned for a single-family home -- and, more importantly, to completely overhaul local zoning regulations to allow the town’s “fair share” of affordable housing to be built.

“That’s a feature, not a bug” of the town’s finely-tuned zoning codes that prohibit multi-family housing and require 1.5-acre lots for single family homes nearly everywhere in town, they wrote in their application.

Last week, the zoning officials in this suburb, which has been controlled by liberals for years, began discussing whether it was time to rethink what type of housing the town allows to be built ahead of the June 9 deadline to vote on the application. While three of the seven-member panel said they were open to exploring and discussing how to amend the request to throw out single-family zoning in town, no decisions were made. At several points during the meeting, however, it became clear the sticking point for several commissioners — including Robert Klee, the chairman of the panel who was was the state’s commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection from 2014 to 2019 — is the impact such changes could have on the environment and the water supply.

State solution?

The application has drawn the attention of local and state officials throughout Connecticut, since the attorneys are prepared to appeal the decision in court.

“We’re not going anywhere,” said Boggs. “We are committed to addressing the fact that Connecticut has exceptionally exclusionary zoning. We’re committed to looking at all of the repercussions of decades of intentional government policies that have created segregation and limited choices for low-income Black and Latino families.”

This case has implications for other Connecticut towns with similar zoning restrictions, if the courts ultimately determine Woodbridge’s regulations have led to discriminatory housing practices.

This approach was taken by fair housing advocates after the General Assembly has declined, year after year, to change state laws so that more affordable housing can be built in well-off suburbs — and this year seems to be no exception. Legislation that would have allocated a so-called “fair share” of affordable housing for each town to develop failed to make it out of the Judiciary Committee. Another bill removed a provision that would have allowed two-, three- and four-unit homes to be constructed around some train stations and town centers without needing special permission before it was voted out of the Planning and Development Committee.

With momentum for changes dissipating at the Capitol once again, efforts to kill the Woodbridge proposal have mirrored campaigns that have popped up elsewhere where affordable housing is proposed.

An online campaign to raise money to fight the proposal quickly raised over $20,000 to hire attorney Tim Herbst, the former first selectman of Trumbull who ran for governor in 2018 and hasn’t ruled out running again in 2022. Donations to hire him came in from several Republican state representatives, a former Republican leader of the state House of Representatives and officials from nearby towns. A flyer was also mailed and circulated that two of the zoning commissioners during their last meeting characterized as “fear mongering.”

“There’s a lot of history there. And history makes people uncomfortable. Politics makes people uncomfortable, and change makes people uncomfortable. And we definitely heard that in the comments that we heard from people. I do think it’s regrettable that there was an entity, particularly [that decided] upon themselves to sow fear in our community,” said Commissioner Yonatan Zamir.

A path forward?

The Woodbridge zoning officials have until June 9 to decide whether to allow multi-family housing to be built in town.

A number of local residents have written the board or spoken at public hearings to ask that they deny the application. Several acknowledged the town’s lackluster history of allowing diverse housing stock to be built, including Herbst, who is representing a dozen residents in town. But they urged the members to wait before deciding. A panel was recently set up to create a plan to allow for more affordable options in town, and that panel should be able to finish its work so the zoning commission has more options to consider, they said.

“This commission is not required to feel intimidated to respond quickly in developing a regulation,” Herbst told the panel on April 5. “On behalf of the town of Woodbridge, the citizens of the town of Woodbridge, and quite frankly, on behalf of the citizens of the state of Connecticut, we’re watching this very closely and counting on all of you to do the right thing: Summarily deny these applications and get to the drawing board.”

“I don’t think that the commission should feel like they’re backed into a corner and have to vote yes to this application. I would ask the commission to wait,” said Nicole Dunzell, a Woodbridge resident, at that same meeting.

But another speaker during the public hearing, Constance Royster, shot back.

“Many of the folks who testified have said that these young lawyers didn’t have a right to bring this matter before this body and before this town,” she said. “And I’m reminded that 60 years ago plus, others did the same thing to my aunt, Constance Baker Motley, born and raised in New Haven, and other lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. [They said] that they had no business coming to Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, to integrate their community. I remind this body, and the town, that you heard from plenty of Woodbridge residents who support this application [and] putting this decision off is quite bothersome. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Residents and some of the zoning commissioners have expressed outrage that those asking for zoning overhaul are describing the town as racist.

“You[r application] essentially called Woodbridge a bunch of racists,” town commissioner Paul Schatz said in February.

The team from the Yale clinic and Open Communities Alliance, however, has said the town has had decades to do the right thing — and that its inaction has had an impact on who can live in Woodbridge. While not explicitly racist, the zoning rules are having a disparate impact on Black and Latino people, they said.

Karen Anderson, a Yale Law School student, spent hours reviewing the town’s zoning decisions dating back to the 1930s.

“Woodbridge’s zoning restrictions over the decades have driven up housing costs, and these high costs exclude many Black and Hispanic families and keep Woodbridge whiter and wealthier than the surrounding region. And so, when Woodbridge stays the same, Woodbridge stays segregated,” Anderson said. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

Another issue: Water

During the panel’s meeting on Monday to deliberate on the application, now that the public hearings are over, some of the commissioners seemed open to some changes, but they have serious reservations with how multi-family housing will affect the environment and the public water supply. Roughly half the town’s land is located in a watershed.

“Development in watersheds can cause risk to that communal water supply,” said Klee, the chairman of the panel and the state’s former environment commissioner. If “you are building in a watershed, you are putting that aquifer, the broader water body at risk.”

“Probably the primary concern that I’ve carried in the back of my mind throughout all of this is … what is the effect going to be?” asked Zamir.

State law requires any application to build in watersheds to notify state public health and environment officials for review, and the team from Yale and Open Communities Alliance is asking Woodbridge to trust those regulators to do their job — and not add another layer of approval by the zoning board for a project to move forward.

“They’ve made a compelling case, and I’m not saying I’m 100% convinced that they have or not, because I’m not an expert on water, but I did not hear any state-supported or consultant-supported information presented to me that said, ‘If you do this this way, it’s going to be a disaster.’ I heard insinuations that this could potentially be a disaster, but nobody convinced me that there’s a disaster waiting to happen,” said Zamir, expressing frustration that state guidance has been minimal on the impact individual multi-family development projects can have on water supply.

But Klee said he sees value in having local review, too.

“When you focus in on what they’re asking for, and what they highlight, there seems to be more opportunity for us to have increased diversity of housing stock, increased types of housing in different parts of our community,” said Klee. “I think there is [value] in having the planning and zoning commission be more in the mode of planning for that development and sort of looking at that entirety of a zone — particularly in our zones that are watershed areas — that takes into account, ‘Wait a minute, maybe we don’t want to leave it all up to an outside entity’s determination. We want to be involved.'”

The panel plans to meet again to continue deliberations.

Editor’s Note: Richard Freedman is a donor to the CT Mirror.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror (www.ctmirror.org). Copyright 2021 © The Connecticut Mirror.

jrabe@ctmirror.org

 

 

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