‘An assault on local control’: Darien residents push back against zoning bills at public hearing

Darien's Planning & Zoning Commission held a public hearing Tuesday on proposed state zoning bills currently before the state legislature this session.

Darien's Planning & Zoning Commission held a public hearing Tuesday on proposed state zoning bills currently before the state legislature this session.

Darien TV79

DARIEN — The overriding message out of Darien’s recent public hearing about proposed zoning bills in Hartford was that local control should be protected.

A dozen community members raised concerns Tuesday about the urbanization of the town, the destruction of historical homes and the threat to future water supply. The hearing was held as part of the Planning & Zoning Commission’s independent review of the zoning bills that some Fairfield County municipalities have criticized.

Many municipal leaders, particularly in Greenwich, have objected to the state’s implication that the towns are not doing enough to address affordable housing.

The bills, some created in concert with Desegregate CT, include changes to how local zoning decisions are made, along with a suggested additional state tax on towns that don’t meet the required affordable housing threshhold.

The “mansion tax,” as it has come to be known, would add a tax onto every home valued at over approximately $430,000 and has bipartisan opposition in Darien. First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, who last month testified against the bills in Hartford, said only 95 of Darien’s 6,652 housing units would be exempt from the proposed levy.

The legislation moved out of committee last week with some modifications.

On Tuesday night, P&Z Chairman Steve Olvany said Darien has already led the way in creating affordable housing, citing the town’s inclusionary zoning statute which requires developers to create a certain percentage of affordable housing along with any market rate housing they build.

Resident Jim Solberg said he was strongly opposed to the zoning bills, and that the state’s goals are less about affordable housing and more about control of zoning and improving the financial gains of real estate developers.

Liz Geiger, chairman of the Architectural Review Board, said Darien’s New England feel, coastal proximity and commute convenience are what draw people to live there. She also urged people not to take the town’s historical structures for granted.

The area around transit hubs, often mentioned in the zoning bills as the ideal site for more multifamily housing, are where many historical homes are located, Geiger said. Replacing these historical homes with out-of-scale structures, and the subsequent lack of minimum parking spaces for such structures, “will result in Darien’s unique visual character being destroyed,” she said.

Meanwhile, Peter McGuinness argued the zoning bills could cause environmental issues. He said water utilities are required to do long-term studies on water supply, and even without additional development, the water supply shared by Darien, New Canaan, Stamford and Greenwich is already facing challenges.

“These projections don’t incorporate unbridled construction,” nor the impact of climate change, McGuinness said.

Janet Cling, who is on the Darien Land Trust board, said what the state wants in terms of affordable housing “is not smart growth. It’s urbanization. It’s the state eliminating ever-unique quality of every town.”

“It’s a social experiment out of a textbook, not reality,” she said.

Janice Jennings, who said she has been in town for 28 years, pointed out that the removal of minimal parking requirements for developers means fewer parking spaces for local businesses.

“I love this town. And in a broad sense, these bills would strip you and me of the ability to participate in the building and development here,” Jennings said. “... No minimum parking would infringe on and usurp the very parking spaces in the main commercial thoroughfare."

Former Selectman Susan Marks said she supports affordable housing, but “strongly opposes any current or future bills or state mandated one-size-fits-all” solutions that take away “any form of local control.”

She added that that the state should respect every city and town is unique, and should be listening to residents on issues.

Commissioner Larry Warble said he was glad to see public involvement on the zoning topic.

“I’m very happy to see we had a robust turnout. The goal here is to let those reps in Hartford hear us,” he said.

Stevenson noted the town’s population density per its 12.7 square miles is 1,718 — the most densely populated small town in southwestern Connecticut, second only to Danbury.

To meet the goals of the current zoning bills, overlayed with the requirements of state statute 8-30g, requiring 10 percent of housing to be affordable, Stevenson said Darien would have to build an additional 12,712 housing units.

“It’s an assault on local control,” she said.

Olvany also pointed to a recent P&Z study that showed Darien had built 866 affordable units over 20 years.

“How you can get another 1,000 units in less than 20 years?” he said.

State Rep. Matt Blumenthal said he has heard from many of his Darien constituents who are concerned about the proposed legislation, and hopes to take a closer look now that the bills emerged from some committees.

“It’s about striking the right balance,” he said at the hearing. “Obviously, we need more affordable housing in Connecticut and more housing to be affordable, especially in Farifield County. I’m not supportive of widespread measures to intervene in local zoning, or to take away of the authority of local communities to decide how and where they will build housing.”

State Rep. Terrie Woods said she was supportive of some aspects of the zoning bills, including accessory dwelling units, and training for land use commissioners.

However, she said she was concerned with others, including building housing “as of right” within a half mile of a transit or business area.

“It’s nonsensical. I don’t understand why there’s a push to urbanize the suburbs. If we urbanize our suburbs, we won’t have suburbs,” she said.

Working in Hartford, Wood said these bills have been “highly divisive, highly controversial and highly charged.”

“I believe it is our job to be rational and logical. Certainly to bring passion, but in the end we have to rely on facts and logic and reasoning to pass legislation, because we want to avoid unintended consequences,” Wood said.

Wood also said she feels Connecticut’s cities and suburbs have been “pitted against each other” during this process and it’s “not right.”

“There’s such beautiful diversity in all of our towns, and we should be celebrating that,” she said.

The bills now go to the Senate or House floor for debate over the next eight weeks of the session.

Both Blumenthal and Wood urged Darien constituents to reach out during the process.

The public can continue to submit testimony to the Planning & Zoning Commission until April 13.