They lamented “veiled accusations of racism,” a “crafty developer,” and a “missed opportunity” for land-use compromise. Then suburban zoners got to work bringing rules for multi-family housing next door to New Haven into the 21st century.

Those suburban zoning reform gears started grinding Monday night during the latest regular monthly meeting of the Woodbridge Town Planning & Zoning Commission, which was held online via WebEx and YouTube.

After more than five months of public hearings on a proposed zoning amendment and town Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) update submitted by a group of civil rights attorneys and Yale law students, the Woodbridge zoning commissioners finally got a chance to publicly digest and discuss the matter Monday.

The meeting offered an opportunity for the five commissioners present to respond to the application, which seeks to make it easier to build multi-family affordable housing in the large-lot, single-family-home-dominated leafy suburb.

The application seeks to do that by allowing multi-family affordable housing as of right, without the need for a land-use commission public hearing, in every residential zone in town so long as the new development complies with the public health code and with Woodbridge’s current bulk regulations for single-family dwellings.

According to the applicant, only 0.2 percent of land in Woodbridge currently allows for the construction of two-family homes, while no part of the suburb allows for multi-family residents of three units or more.

The case has sparked the attention and participation of New Haveners interested in the regional roots of racism and segregation, and in how those two social ills relate to municipal land use law. It also offers a microcosm of a statewide and national debate around exclusionary zoning and local land-use control.

While the commissioners did not take any kind of final vote Monday night, they did commit to changing Woodbridge’s zoning code in some way in the direction of allowing more multi-family housing in more parts of town.

Led by Commission Chair Rob Klee, the commissioners agreed to not accept or reject the zoning amendment application in its entirety.

Rather, they plan to vote on an amended version that they said will take into consideration the environmental particularities—such as public water and sewer access, prevalence of private wells and septic systems, and the proximity of public supply watersheds—of each part of town.

“Yes, the applicants have put something before us. We’re not going to approve it wholly. We’re not going to reject it wholly. [Should we be exploring] finding reasonable alternatives if we can to what they proposed? Should we head down this road?” Klee asked. “I, for one, would like to head down this road and start exploring options.”

“I have absolutely no problem with concurring and exploring options,” Commissioner Paul Katz replied.

Commissioner Yonatan Zamir agreed.

“I’ll listen to what you have to say,” added fellow Commissioner Jeff Kennedy.

Much of that zone-by-zone tinkering will take place during a special public meeting of the commission on Thursday, May 13 at 7 p.m.

Klee and the other commissioners previewed what work will take place then as they reviewed a breakdown put together by commission-hired consultant Glenn Chalder. That chart displays what types of housing are currently allowed in each area of Woodbridge, what the applicants want allowed in each zone, and what other options the commissioners can consider as they mull over potential amendments.

“The applicants want the ability to have two units everywhere in town,” Klee said as an example. “Do we want to expand the ability to have two units in some or all of the zones in town? Do we want two-family buildings with at least one unit at 60 percent AMI [area median income]?” Is there “some flavor” of that proposed change the commissioners should consider with the goal of diversifying the town’s housing stock?

Already two hours into the meeting and trying to decipher the manifold signs and symbols on Chalder’s chart (green squares represent what’s currently allowed by Woodbridge law, orange circles represent what the application seeks to achieve, grey circles represent other possible zoning reforms the commissioners could make), the group decided to push their detailed, zone-by-zone review to the May 13 meeting.

That’s when they plan to formulate specific recommended changes to the town’s zoning laws, which they’ll then vote on during their regular monthly meeting on June 7.

Racism Fatigue? “Crafty Developer”?

The commissioners instead spent the bulk of Monday night’s deliberations giving their general responses to the wealth of information, arguments, expert opinions, and public testimony presented in this case over the past five months of hearings.

Each commissioner’s big-picture take offered a window into just how frustrating they’ve found the contentious land-use debate that has centered on their town, and on their volunteer public body.

For some, that indignation stemmed from the role that race has played in the months-long case.

According to 2018 U.S. Census numbers, Woodbridge’s population is roughly 74.8 percent white, 2.7 percent Black, 5.6 percent Hispanic, and 15.3 percent Asian American. Throughout the case, the civil rights attorneys and Yale law students representing the applicant, Open Communities Alliance, have argued that Woodbridge’s zoning laws that give preference to large lot, single-family homes artificially inflate the cost of housing, and serve as a legal barrier to racial and economic integration.

“I felt like this was turned into a referendum on race rather than the merits of the application,” Schatz said. “I was really disappointed in how many times I counted the word ‘exclusionary’ in their written presentation, as well as in their oral presentation.”

“Frankly, I didn’t believe it had any place in the presentation,” he continued. “It was a veiled attempt to call current and former members of the TPZ [Town Planning and Zoning commission] racist, as well as the entire town, which I found was grossly inappropriate.”

He called the applicants’ presentations on land-use regulations “thoughtful and thought-provoking,” and dismissed their frequent references to the town’s racial makeup and alleged racially exclusive land-use laws.

“Nobody wants to sit as many hours as we did and essentially be antagonized with veiled accusations of racism.”

Commissioner Kennedy said he too was bothered by how frequently race came up during the public hearings. Over time, however, he said he came to understand the applicant’s focus on Woodbridge’s racial makeup as a cipher for a deeper conspiracy led by a multi-family housing developer that plans to convert a single-family house at 2 Orchard Rd. into a four-family home if the application’s proposed amendments are adopted.

As time went by, he said, he began to view the case as neither a zoning reform application nor an indictment of the town’s demographics, but instead “maybe a little bit more as a business plan by a capable and possibly crafty developer who possibly is using racial issues to develop or find more housing investment” opportunities.

That developer—Stamford builder Richard Freedman of the Garden Homes Fund, whom Kennedy did not reference explicitly by name but who has presented multiple times alongside the zoning reform applicants in this case—is “possibly using a race agenda to maneuver or maybe advance” a separate secret agenda to make money building more, larger homes in Woodbridge.

Commission Chair Klee, meanwhile, lamented that the applicants were not more willing to discuss potential amendments and changes to the zoning reform they submitted.

He called that “potentially a missed opportunity, because I think for myself, I would have welcomed those sorts of conversations about what is possible.” Instead, the applicants repeatedly said over the course of the case that their application represents a simple, easy-to-understand, and elegant solution to the town’s effective de facto ban on multi-family housing, and that they were not interested in presenting alternate versions for the commissioners to consider.

Klee also praised the applicants for pushing the commission to focus on this very issue of land-use law, mutli-family housing, and affordable housing in Woodbridge.

“There seems to be more opportunity for us to have increased diversity of housing stock, increased types of housing in different parts of our community,” he said.

Commissioner Andrew Skolnick described the application as “thorough and impressive and commensurate with the size of the legal team that prepared it.”

And Commissioner Zamir, who works as a New Haven legal aid attorney as his day job, turned his criticism to some of the more vociferous opponents to the application who spoke up during the public testimony sections of previous meetings to voice their concerns that allowing for multi-family housing will inevitably result in environmental destruction, woeful traffic, and ungainly large developments.

“While much of the comments were heartfelt and meaningful, there was a slice echoing some fear and some ignorance of history,” he said.

Zamir said that Woodbridge’s zoning commission has previously considered adopting land-use laws that make it easier to build multi-family, affordable housing in various parts of town. And, each time in recent memory, “those got removed in response to a loud chorus of people who said, ‘Don’t you dare.’”

That local, public pushback occurred again this time around, he said.

“There’s a lot of history there. History makes people uncomfortable. Politics makes people uncomfortable. Change makes people uncomfortable. And we definitely heard that in comments from people.”

See below for previous coverage of this Woodbridge rezoning proposal.

• Housing Debate Pivots Again Towards Race
• Suburb Housing Quest Enters New Phase
• Suburb Housing Pitch: Ditch Hearings
• Urban Lawyer/Suburban Zoner Seeks Right “Balance” In Housing Controversy
• Open-Housing Debate: Define Racism
• Open-Housing Quest Critics Champion Local Control
• Suburban Zoning Debate Gets Personal
• City, ‘Burb Clash On Open-Housing Quest
• Urban Housing Lauded; Suburbs Challenged