SB:1024 – The “End of Zoning as You Know It” Bill

I support affordable housing in Greenwich and have done so for decades. Back in the ‘80’s, I drafted the original affordable accessory apartment ordinance and helped usher it through the Greenwich Planning & Zoning Commission. In the 90’s, I was Chair of the Selectmen’s Affordable Housing Commission for several years trying to coordinate multiple town agencies to make Greenwich welcoming to a diversity of people and economic means. I want to preserve the character of Greenwich and enhance its already diverse population. We are about to see a bill that will do just the opposite, while greatly changing Greenwich.

SB 1024 is a blockbuster bill just introduced in the Connecticut legislature that will do a lot of damage to the quality of life in Greenwich, particularly central Greenwich and will produce only a little affordable housing. We also have another bill that wants to create a statewide property tax, which in combination with SB 1024 would be create synergistic badness for Greenwich.

What SB 1024 will do if passed, and it has a very good chance of passing, is to bring in developers from outside this area to build lots of multi-family housing to rent mostly at market prices. The proponents of this bill, “Desegregate Connecticut”, are of the opinion that if you build lots of new housing that housing prices will fall, and this will desegregate Connecticut. I think that is extremely unlikely given that we live in a metro area of 14 million plus, lots of who would love to live in Greenwich, a town of only 62,000. What you are more likely to get are lots of new downtown and Post Road units renting at premium, not affordable prices.

There are several underlying ideas that have been incorporated into the bill, but I can’t tell you how they would work even after multiple readings of the bill. Over the years, I’ve worked on a lot of legislation; as an attorney, testifying twice in front of the Connecticut legislature, as a lobbyist in Washington and speaking at a lot of public hearings here in town on P&Z and other regulations.  I thought I was losing it in my old age, because I couldn’t figure out the details of how SB 1024 would work here in Greenwich. Luckily for me, and unfortunately for Connecticut, everyone I’ve discussed the bill has said the same thing too; they don’t know how it would work.

Let’s take a look I what I think the bill says.

              WHERE COULD YOU BUILD

The bill proposes high-density development around the primary transit station for each municipality. For Greenwich, this means our train stations and it probably means the Greenwich train station. Unfortunately, the definition of “municipality” is somewhat convoluted so in a worse case situation it could be all four train stations. The bill proposes allowing the building of high-density complexes within a half-mile of the transit station.   The odds are that this is all of downtown Greenwich, including parts of Mead Point. This transit area will be looking at an intensity of development that we have never seen before and under this bill the town can’t stop or even slow down this development.

The bill however goes on to say that the half-mile radius can be expanded to 1 mile if there is “a public right of way that directly connects to such transit station with adequate sidewalks, crosswalks and other similar pedestrian facilities”. Central Greenwich is a great place to walk, and a 1-mile radius would extend from Greenwich Hospital to most of Belle Haven and Field Point Circle.

In addition to central Greenwich, you also have two other areas for increased density projects; one is the “Main street corridor” and the other is any lot in our single-family zones. The “main street corridor”may only be the Post Road for three-quarters of a mile around the top of Greenwich Avenue or it may mean the entire Post Road from NY to Stamford. I’m guessing it’s the entire length of the Post Road, but I’m not sure. (It might also mean some of King Street also.) This main street corridor would extend along the Post Road and for a quarter mile on each side.

              WHAT COULD YOU BUILD?

If it is central Greenwich and the Post Road corridor, the question is what could you build. This is the really interesting part; you can build higher density in the transit district and the main street corridor at a “minimum of density of 15 units per acre”. To me that means that on our R-20, 0.46 acre lots, you would have to build at least 7 units.

 What I can’t figure out is how big that 7-unit building can be. It might be limited to the present FAR of 4,500 s.f. in the R-20 zone, that would be 7 units of 643 sf. It might be limited to half of the lot size or 10,000 square feet per floor up to 37.5 feet the height limitation in the R-20 or it might have no limit. Also, the economics would strongly encourage developers do assemblages of properties, and to buy oversized lots so that they could put up much larger buildings.

In the transit district you may not have to any on-site parking. The presumption is that everyone will take public transit. In the main street corridor developer would only need a max of 2 parking spots per unit. So, a four-bedroom unit with 6 people would still only need 2 parking spots. Imagine what trying to drive on Milbank or E. Elm will be like in 2022.

In the single-family zones each property could build an accessory apartment. This means a guesthouse of up to 1,000 s.f. with a full kitchen. This apartment can be either be in the house, with no need for a separate entrance, or it can be in a separate building. Contractors will have field day building elegant pool houses with full kitchens. Parents will be able to send their kids to play in the backyard and not come back until tomorrow, oh and make your own breakfast too.

The bill has no requirement that these actually be rented, they just have to be deed restricted for 10 year. Presently in Greenwich, if you build an affordable accessory apartment you had to certify each year that it was still be rented at an affordable rate. The bill will abolish both our affordable accessory and elderly accessory apartment regulations.  

The bill also eliminates three key zoning provisions that presently zoning board members can use to turn down projects. Today projects have “to provide adequate light and air; to prevent the overcrowding of land; [have] to avoid undue concentration of population”. No longer will overcrowding be a factor to be considered or can you complain that the proposed big apartment building will block the sun or air circulation. Under this bill density as they call it in the new bill or overcrowding as it called in the present law is actually being encouraged in what are already our most densely populated areas.

              “AS OF RIGHT” IS WRONG

Probably the most dangerous concept in the whole bill is that all of the above can be done “as of right”. This is the so-called “permit zoning.” If this bill is seen as having a good chance of passing then developers will option lots of land in central Greenwich and along the Post Road. Once the bill is signed they close on the land and wait for it go effective on October 1, 2021. In the meantime they pull out there previous plans done in Norwalk, Hartford, Yonkers and New York City where this type of high-density development is more common and tweak the plans for that site. (This is what will give out of town developers and advantage. On Friday, October 1, 2021 we could see as many as a dozen or more of these permit applications filed with the Building Department. Provided, they comply with the Building Code the Town would have to approve them by December 9th and construction could start the next day.  Unlike the present 8-30g affordable house process, it appears that public health and safety, nor environmental issues can be considered. Sewer capacity may also not be an issue. (Lack of sewer line capacity was a primary factor in denying approval for the 355 unit proposal on the Post Road Ironworks site.)  

The only limit to how many units can be built is that the town can limit these new high-density development to 50% of the downtown lots. It’s not clear whether that means the town can designate which half of the area can be developed or that they have to wait until there is a high density development on every other lot, before these units can be stopped.

“As of right” means no P&Z review, no public hearings, but still likely lots of lawsuits. Whether the town can get a preliminary injunction to halt the construction of dozens of projects is not at all clear. It’s also not at all clear as how many developers would go ahead in such a circumstance.

 As I said I’m an advocate of affordable housing. I think accessory apartments are a good way for widows to stay in their houses and for young couples to buy their first house and for kids who grew up here to find an affordable place to live. The town could have done a better job of telling people about our elderly accessory and affordably accessory apartments, but the town needs some control of these units which the proposed permit zoning does not permit.

We also don’t need a statewide property tax. As with all taxes it will start off low, but just as the income tax did, it will grow. Every time legislators need to plug a budget deficit hole, they can change one number, the state-wide mill rate, and poof the deficit is gone. Then we’ll get more tiers and the politically connected will get exemptions. It’s a really dangerous tax.

              SO, WHAT CAN BE DONE

The proponents of this bill have been organizing for years and are trying to apply a machete to every town’s regulations, when towns are very diverse. DesegregateCT.org lists 70 organizations that support them. You can start by contacting your state senator and representatives. Luckily, we have legislators in both the Republican and Democratic caucuses. Given the anti-Trump backlash, that swept in more liberal legislators, stopping this bill will be hard, so the best we may be able to do amend it, and let’s really hope it can be clarified, so at least we know what the rules are.

The legislators have already sat through a day of testimony, and I mean a day that started on one day and ended in the morning the following day, but I and other people couldn’t testify. There should be more hearings and they should be done regionally.

You can also check out organization that you may be members of who are supporting DesegregateCT and let them know that you don’t support SB1024 as proposed. We, and they, can support desegregating housing. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities of which Greenwich is a member is a supporter of DesegregateCT. CATIC who writes title insurance policies through their attorney clients supports DesegregateCT through their foundation. Other members are the Sierra Club, Connecticut Homebuilders, AIA Connecticut (architects), APA CT (town planners) and ironically, Connecticut Preservation Action.

As to the state property tax; kill it. The state is getting billions of dollars from Washington as part of pandemic relief. Now is not the time for more taxes.

I like to say stay tuned for upcoming developments, but this time I’m urging you to get up and do something, now, before uncontrolled upcoming developments overwhelms us.

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