Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, co-chair of the Planning and Development Committee (CTNewsJunkie photo)

A bill to reform local zoning laws to expand affordable housing in the state passed 84-59 in the House Thursday, but advocates remain concerned that municipalities can simply opt out of its key measures.

“This bill is not where we want it to be,” said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford. “But it is moving us in the right direction by balancing the goals of updating our zoning and land use statutes, while recognizing the premium we all place in local control.”

The bill, which legislators have called a watered-down version of its predecessors, seeks to revise existing zoning laws to promote the purposes of the federal Fair Housing Act, as well as require municipalities to plan and provide for enough affordable housing.

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

“This bill is a step aimed at addressing the legacy of housing policy that results in divisions in our society that have kept us from reaching our collective potential,” Rojas said.

Affordable housing expansion has been a long fight for advocates, as municipalities greatly value control over their local zoning laws and bitterly oppose state involvement. A public hearing in April on a number of contentious affordable housing bills lasted 24 hours with 340 people signed up to testify.

Connecticut is one of the wealthiest states in the country, but it also has one of the nation’s greatest gaps in income equality. The state also has an affordable housing shortage, meaning lower-income households often find it difficult to move to areas with better job and educational opportunities.

The bill largely has backing from Democrats, including Gov. Ned Lamont, who said Thursday that “affordable housing is more of a priority today than it’s ever been” in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think that’s a bill that makes an awful lot of sense to me and all serves to expand the housing stock for people who can’t afford it otherwise,” Lamont said.

The main elements of the bill include the statewide legalization of accessory dwelling units and the banning of minimum parking space rules. It also requires planning commissioners to receive a minimum of four hours of training every other year. Additionally, it establishes a working group to guide and study municipal affordable housing plans and zoning regulations.

Proponents say that the legislation not only addresses Connecticut’s affordable housing crisis and systemic inequalities, but also the state’s environment and economy because it reduces sprawl and encourages residents to stay, among other things.

“This bill is not primarily an affordable housing bill. It provides the framework and foundation to direct and point us to a future that involves change,” said Planning and Development Committee Co-Chair Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield.

“We’ve had an affordable housing crisis and of housing at all levels,” she added.

But advocates argue there is an unavoidable downside to the bill: it includes a process that lets municipalities opt out of permitting accessory apartments and banning minimum parking space rules with a two-thirds majority from local planning commissions and legislative bodies.

Municipalities can apply for the exemptions by Jan. 1, 2023.

Hartford-based non-profit Partnership for Strong Communities said it wants municipalities to recognize the advantages of the measures rather than to opt out of them.

“It is our hope that municipalities within Connecticut will see the vast benefits to permitting housing diversity and embrace this new policy around ADU’s,” the organization said in a statement.

Rep. Joe Zullo, R-East Haven (CTNewsJunkie photo)

The bill passed along party lines. Republican opponents expressed concern about how it would affect a municipality’s “character,” “personality” and “charm” to comply with the state.

“Is it wise to infringe upon the unique character, the unique qualities of every municipality in this state with a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach? I would say it’s not,” said Rep. Joe Zullo, R-East Haven.

Opponents were also worried about what they called a lack of opportunity for public input and hearing.

“We each and all have unique development interests. I find it concerning that we’re looking at a more regionalized consideration when it comes to zoning. There’s a reason why we have local control: we know what’s good for our towns,” Zullo said.

And though the bill lets municipalities retain control over much of their local zoning laws, opponents argue that the state has no business being involved in the regulations whatsoever.

“We need to trust that the people of Connecticut can solve so many of their problems. The solutions are not in this bill,” Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, R-Greenwich, said.

Rep. Jason Perillo, R-Shelton, said that the bill was insulting to local planning boards because it insinuates that they can’t determine what’s best for their own communities.

“That’s what we’re saying [with this bill]. ‘We’re smart here in Hartford, but the zoning folks [elsewhere] are stupid,’” he said.