Darien opposes state's proposed 'one-size-fits-all' housing measures

New zoning laws proposed would increase state control over areas near transit, such as Noroton Heights train station Darien.

New zoning laws proposed would increase state control over areas near transit, such as Noroton Heights train station Darien.

Patrick Sikes / For Hearst Connecticut Media

DARIEN — The town’s Planning & Zoning Commission has notified the state’s joint housing committee it rejects the “one-size-fits-all” concept of proposed housing bills.

In testimony to legislators regarding several proposed laws in this session related to housing and zoning changes, P&Z Chairman Steve Olvany said the commission believes Darien residents are better served by their own local officials.

The testimony on three bills proposed from Olvany urged the lawmakers to preserve local control over zoning, land use and housing matters affecting Darien and all other municipalities in the state.

“It is our understanding that there are several proposals being considered that would, to varying degrees, negatively impact Darien’s ability to govern itself and make land use decisions that fit the unique needs of our community,” he wrote.

The bills, promoted by the Desegregate CT platform, include one on affordable housing, one to expand the housing authority’s jurisdiction to include certain high and very high opportunity areas, and one to allow accessory dwelling units and prohibit list-back agreements.

“As the town of Darien continues to evolve, we believe that local control of review and decision making are essential to meeting the current and future needs of our residents, protecting local environmental, natural, and historic resources and maintaining transparency and accountability in connection with the land use process,” Olvany said.

In his testimony, Olvany said the laws would in part transfer decision making away from locally officials, largely eliminating the “long established right of municipalities to manage their own land use.”

The testimony came as a result of Darien’s P&Z Commission assigning a subcommittee to study the bills and offer an analysis. Olvany also said the commission plans to hold a public hearing for Darien residents to weigh in on the bills and their impact on the town.

Aspects of the bills that Olvany believes could negatively affect Darien include:

— Decisions regarding accessory dwelling units (ADUs);

— Housing density, especially in areas within a half-mile of commuter train stations, or a quarter mile of commercial corridors;

— A reduction in parking requirements;

— Permitting and public hearing procedures, including the elimination of special permit review by the Planning & Zoning Commission, in many cases;

— Required training for land use board members;

— The “character” of new development;

— Creation of one-size-fits-all zoning guidelines;

— Capping peer review fees;

— Traffic and sewer standards;

— Housing authority jurisdiction

Olvany said while the proposals “purport to have admirable/desirable goals,” the town’s P&Z Commission “strongly believes” these areas are best handled by Darien officials and trained professionals.

Olvany also said Darien has advocated for and made progress in the areas of affordable housing and multi-family housing.

“This has included the implementation of an inclusionary zoning regulation requiring that 12 percent of housing units, within developments inclusive of more than four residential units, be designated as deed-restricted affordable units,” Olvany wrote.

Of the more than 850 multi-family housing units constructed and approved for construction in Darien since 2000, about 32 percent are deed-restricted affordable units, Olvany said.

“We further note that the Planning & Zoning Commission recently approved 300-plus additional multi-family units, 12 percent of which are being developed as affordable units, including units to support the developmentally disabled population,” Olvany said in his testimony.

These units were approved as part of three separate mixed-use, transit oriented development projects, within a quarter-mile of the commuter rail stations, according to Olvany.

Darien will continue to review project applications and to make decisions regarding the most appropriate areas of the town to be designated for affordable and multi-family housing units, he said.

The town will also soon embark on the the 2021 state-mandated affordable housing plan, which is expected to identify additional areas of the town that could be rezoned to increase density and provide more housing diversity.

“We recognize that work needs to be done throughout the state and in all of our communities to increase affordability and housing options for all, and that changes to our zoning regulations are likely warranted in certain areas,” Olvany said.

Olvany said the commission, partially in response to ongoing housing and zoning reform discussions throughout the state and Darien, is undertaking numerous zoning amendments to address identified issues. These amendments include changes regarding accessory dwelling units, inclusionary zoning standards, parking requirements, and eliminating minimum house and apartment sizes.

While Olvany said the commission agrees with taking a proactive approach, members believe implementing policy on a local level is “far more effective with respect to garnering support from the community when compared to requiring compliance with state mandates.”

Town residents Evonne Klein and Chris Janson, who have created a group called Darien Talks Housing, recently invited Sara Bronin, founder of Desegregate CT, to speak with local residents.

Last August, Klein, who is the former director of the state Department of Housing, wrote an opinion piece about why she feels it’s “time to Desegregate CT.”

“Change is never easy. But we can’t let old fears get in the way of building a better Connecticut. Questions like whether more inclusive communities will ‘burden’ our schools and where our new neighbors ‘come from’ fall into the racist traps of the past that hold us back today,” she wrote.

Despite that, several residents wrote letters objecting to the agenda.

“I oppose these measures as I consider them tantamount to the elimination of municipal self-governance and state takeover of town Planning & Zoning and real estate taxation. The town of Darien has a Plan of Conservation and Development,” Rolf Obin wrote.

The P&Z Commission intends to hold the public hearing in late March or early April to hear from Darien residents.