Proposed zoning bills reveal political divide in Darien

DARIEN — While town officials — including Republican First Selectman Jayme Stevenson — have continued to voice their opposition of proposed state housing bills, some local Democrats have expressed their support.

It was nearly midnight when Stevenson testified late Monday night, saying Darien opposes “as of right” (without public hearing) multi-family housing development within a half-mile of transit stations and a quarter-mile of Main Street corridors.

Stevenson served as vice president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. Its president, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, said the CCM endorsed the bills. Sen. Tony Hwang, who represents Easton, Fairfield, Newtown, Weston and Westport, asked Stevenson if she felt the CCM had been fully in support of the proposed bills.

“My goal was to join the committee to work with my peers to collaborate,” she said.

Stevenson also pointed out that no other agenda or ideas were brought to the table for discussion other than the Desegregate CT agenda, and said Sara Bronin, founder of Desegregate CT and the Hartford mayor’s wife, was part of the discussions.

She said she had maintained her objection to the above factors of the bill. She pointed out that the train station proximity that would enable “as of right” development left almost the entire town in that zone.

Stevenson also said she volunteered to work with her peers on the CCM because she feels Darien has been wrongly criticized for not having enough affordable housing.

“I hope I have dispelled that notion tonight and shown that we are not only doing our fair share, we are exceeding our fair share,” Stevenson said.

She also added that all Connecticut municipalities must create an affordable housing plan, which is due next year under state statute.

“Why not let us have the chance to do that work, come back to this at that time,” she said.

Rep. Michael Winkler, D-Vernon, said the 8-30j doesn’t include any enforcement aspect and towns can create a plan and “put it on a shelf” like a Plan of Conservation and Development.

Stevenson pointed out that Darien refers to and works with its POCD. She also pointed out in terms of state equity, the discussion should also be directed to the state education board to create more equal education experiences for all towns and cities.

However, Darien resident Christopher Janson, co-founder of Darien Talks Housing, said he disagreed with Stevenson’s position on transit-oriented development. He also said that despite the town’s progress with affordable housing, Darien should still partner with others to create more.

Stevenson also pointed out the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, which includes Danbury, Stamford, Brookfield, Darien, Sherman, Westport, Wilton, Bridgewater, Bethel, New Canaan, New Milford, Norwalk, Ridgefield and more, also issued opposition to Senate Bill 804.

Executive Director Frances Pickering pointed out in a letter to members of the housing committee that it was for “good reason” that the changes SB 804 had not been adopted by any other state.

“SB 804 represents an extremist deregulatory agenda that does not serve the people of Connecticut, and WestCOG urges you to reject it as such,” Pickering wrote.

In response to an inquiry, Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, who also represents part of Darien, said the discussion “of Connecticut’s zoning laws at the Planning & Development Committee is important about how our state can increase our housing stock, attract more residents to Connecticut, and unleash more of our economic potential.”

Duff said he was encouraged by the interest in this topic and the number of residents testifying. He also said he hopes it is “an opportunity for people to not only speak but to also listen and hear the opinions of all our communities.”

“Let’s tune out the over-the-top rhetoric and look to how we can work together. No, Hartford is not taking over local zoning. No, home rule as outlined in our state Constitution is not changing,” Duff said.

He added that Senate Bill 1024, in particular, was developed with the technical expertise of planners and zoning enforcement officials serving towns all over the state.

Local town organizations and political committees have held various discussions about the bills. Darien Talks Housing recently invited Sara Bronin and others to discuss the Desegregate CT agenda.

The Darien Republican Town Committee also recently held a forum to discuss the bills.

Local control over zoning has been a hot-button issue in the last year, especially during elections. During the November election and even the recent special election, volunteers reported seeing campaign signs in Darien indicating one or the other party does not support local zoning.

Darien Republican Town Committee Chairman Alexander Davidson said there is strong opposition in town to the bills, including registered Democrats, unaffiliated voters as well as Republicans.

“Most residents, new and longtime, seem to explicitly understand that decisions about development in our small town are best made by us, not some unaccountable bureaucracy in Hartford. So, once they understand what is actually in these bills, they are becoming rather alarmed,” Davidson said.

Randy Klein, a founding member of the Action Network of Darien Democrats, said the proposed legislation “will not only address the long-standing segregation issues in our communities and state, but also address the economic and environmental challenges we face which were highlighted in last spring’s Black Lives Matter marches.”

“I attended a number of presentations representing both viewpoints and it was clear that Darien has already done much of what is being proposed,” he said.

“It is unclear why elected officials in Darien would choose to take an oppositional position to this legislation. The fact is Darien is uniquely positioned to lead on zoning and has failed to seize the opportunity,” he said.

State Rep. Terrie Wood, R-Rowayton, who also represents Darien, recently pointed out that part of the proposed bills includes the right to build multi-family units anywhere within a half-mile of a transit station and reduced parking requirements for developments.

“As proposed, none of these would need to go through local Planning & Zoning Commissions. The goal of this from Hartford bureaucrats is to encourage development of more affordable housing in ‘high-opportunity zones,’” Wood said.

“A more practical alternative to create more affordable housing in towns is by allowing accessory dwelling units (sometimes known as “granny” apartments) in certain zones; changing affordable housing thresholds based on specific income levels of municipalities,” Wood said.

She added that one size does not fit all and 10 percent is not a magic number.

David Bayne, chairman of Darien’s Democratic Town Committee, told Hearst Connecticut Media “the state legislature’s Planning & Development Committee is hearing important bills relating to zoning and how best to ensure economic growth, equity and affordable housing.”

“Unfortunately, some are using scare tactics, fear mongering and false information to manufacture a political wedge issue and drum up blanket opposition to these proposals,” Bayne said.

In considering the proposals under discussion, Bayne said Darien’s residents “should keep in mind that no change to local ‘home rule’ is being proposed, nor is a state ‘takeover’ of local zoning under consideration.”

“My hope is that Darien’s leaders will join CCM and the leaders of other towns in supporting these efforts so that meaningful progress can be made with respect to economic growth, equity and affordable housing in Connecticut,” Bayne said.

Darien Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman Steve Olvany recently submitted testimony to the state on various bills proposed and how they could negatively impact the town.

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.

State Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, who also represents part of Darien, said “in general, I believe we must do more to make housing in Connecticut — especially Fairfield County — more affordable.”

“But it’s also important to strike a balance that ensures municipalities have sufficient discretion to suit the needs of their specific communities. I’ve been speaking with numerous constituents about their concerns about these issues, and will be reviewing the testimony at the public hearings,” Blumenthal said.

Stevenson has issued an invitation to Darien’s state legislators to come to the town for a discussion on the bills. Wood has been the only one to respond, she said.

Duff’s assistant told Stevenson the senator would “consider a more detailed conversation on these issues once a bill or bills passes the relevant committees and is ready for action in ether the House or Senate.”

Stevenson told Hearst Connecticut Media said she felt “the most important time to hear the voices of those you represent is before and during the committee hearing process.”