Darien officials want to opt out of state housing policy, remain ‘masters of their own destiny’

DARIEN — In the latest bid to maintain local control in zoning matters, town officials said they plan to opt out of a state policy that legalizes all so-called “granny apartments” or secondary residences built onto single-family homes to boost housing stock.

The state passed legislation in 2021 that broadly gives towns permission to construct accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, which are housing units that can be built as an add-on to a property that is zoned for a single family. Housing advocates have celebrated the move as one potential solution to the state’s housing crisis.

Under the legislation, local officials have until January 2023 to decide whether they want to opt out of the state’s ADU regulations and create their own rules around allowing the residences.

While the decision will ultimately rest with both the Planning and Zoning commission and the Representative Town Meeting, Planning and Zoning earlier this week unanimously indicated it would prefer to opt out of the state’s regulations.

“I want to be able to maintain local control,” commission chair Stephen Olvany said during a July 19 meeting. “We've done a great job doing it in all of our other stuff. If we opt out, which is what my recommendation is, we can maintain local control and draft our own statute.”

ADUs are defined solely as a “separate dwelling unit” on a property with greater square footage, and one that has cooking facilities. They can come in a variety of configurations — attached to a house, detached as a separate building or even inside a home.

Darien is already well-positioned to build this type of housing , Olvany said.

“In our town, in 2-acre lots, it’s very easy to have an accessory dwelling unit,” Olvany said. “We already have a lot of pool houses in town.”

David Keating, a former town zoning officer, said ADUs bring much benefit to the town, including the increase of resale value for the property any units are added on to.

There are also drawbacks, Keating told the commission: Public facilities like the town sewer and water system could take a hit, and traffic congestion could increase.

Keating also emphasized that ADUs are also not required to be affordable units — construction of affordable housing has been a major concern for town officials.

Officials were also primarily concerned with how ADUs would fit under Darien’s parking regulations, which require each dwelling unit to have two parking spots. Currently, most streets do not allow overnight street parking during the winter.

Olvany said he was concerned that two kitchens on a property could increase the possibility of fire.

All of this will mean residents who want to build ADUs will need to come before the commission with a thorough plan, Olvany said.

“Having to come to the planning and zoning commission with your plans, with your parking, with your layout and have to show to us, I don’t think that’s a big ask,” Olvany said.

Jeremy Ginsberg, the town’s planning and zoning director, told the commission that the majority of neighboring communities have said they are likely to opt out, including Greenwich, Westport and Wilton. Stamford’s decision is still unclear.

The matter will now pass to the RTM, which could decide whether it wants to opt out or not sometime in October.

“We have to remain masters of our own destiny, insofar as we can,” commission member Jim Rand said.