Even in this strange election cycle, I wasn’t expecting zoning to become a campaign issue. Shows what I know.
We’re in the closing days of the 2020 election, and Republicans are feeling queasy about their chances, dragged down by an unpopular incumbent at the top of the ticket. Connecticut Republicans are faced with the grim prospect of the president continuing to turn off the voters they need most: suburbanites.
And yet, some of the themes President Donald J. Trump frequently returns to are popping up in Connecticut campaigns, including rants about Democrats trying to abolish the suburbs by eliminating single-family zoning.
Essentially the rule told jurisdictions that received federal funds that they had to figure out where they have a problem with racial discrimination in housing and come up with a plan to fix it. Trump, who is convinced the suburbs are as racist as he is, thinks eliminating that rule is a big winner. He tweeted back in July that suburbanites “will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low-income housing built in your neighborhood …” Therefore a rule about ending racial discrimination, filtered through a Trump lens, is all about keeping “low-income housing” out of suburban neighborhoods. So that’s why all those dogs are barking.
Plenty of Connecticut Republicans have expressed plenty of concerns about affordable housing and zoning. Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, posted a lengthy piece titled “Should the State Control Your Local Zoning Laws?” over the summer. Rep. Terrie Wood, R-Darien, wrote a piece on her official page decrying the potential for the state to take control of local zoning. Republican candidates, including Kimberly Fiorello of Greenwich, Rep. Tom O’Dea of New Canaan, Patrizia Zucaro of Westport, Ellie Kousidis of Norwalk, Rep. Devin Carney of Old Lyme, and Steve Weir of Hebron, among others, all have talked about the need to keep the state out of local zoning decisions.
At issue is a policy agenda proposed by Senate Democrats before the summer special session, which was turned into a bill raised by Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor. One of the items on the agenda was reforming local zoning, because “…regulating multi-family homes, use of a property and imposing similar restrictions on residents and construction can effectively zone out certain people, contributing to discrimination.” In other words towns can, through zoning, force houses to be too expensive for disadvantaged groups to afford.
It’s not just Republicans who are cool toward more state control of zoning, though; some lower Fairfield County Democrats are, too. Sen. Will Haskell, D-Greenwich and Michelle McCabe, who is challenging Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, both agreed with their Republican opponents that zoning ought to remain under local control. Patrizia Zucaro’s Democratic opponent, Stephanie Thomas of Norwalk, also declined to support Anwar’s bill, citing local concerns.
Unfortunately for them, zoning really does need reform.
Zoning in Connecticut began in 1921, when the state allowed the city of New Haven to create zoning districts in order to regulate growth, reduce traffic congestion, and protect property values. Most of the towns before World War II with zoning laws were cities and larger towns. But after the war, when the suburbs exploded in growth, small towns seeing an influx of residents created their own regulations.
These regulations, among other things, required certain lot sizes for new house construction. If you take a look at the modern Darien zoning map, you’ll see that most of the town is in the R-1 and R-2 zone. These single-family zones require lot sizes of one and two acres, respectively. Wilton is just as bad: almost the entire town is in zone 2-A, which mandates one-acre lots.
Do you have any idea how much an acre of land in lower Fairfield County costs? It’s a lot. That’s how exclusionary zoning works.
Just being able to divide up those lots or build two-family homes on them would do a lot to relieve the housing crunch in that part of the state. But state-mandated “affordable housing” zones in these towns are often confined to small areas, while the rich get the rest of the land.
Both Darien and Wilton are 96% white. Huh.
So, yes, trying to get wealthy Connecticut towns to budge on actual zoning reform is tough. When towns won’t do it on their own, it’s time for the state to step in. Hopefully, Sen. Anwar’s bill will return next session.
Candidates of both parties should take care, though; when your rhetoric on zoning starts to line up with Donald Trump’s, maybe you’re not on the right side of the issue after all.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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