The New Zoning Law 

by Tim Vilinskis

 

Did the new zoning legislation, that was recently passed, set Ridgefield up to be sued by developers and housing activists? The new law contains an explicit requirement that towns “affirmatively further the purposes of the federal Fair Housing Act.” Some may remember a few years back HUD targeted Westchester County after it published its “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” (AFFH) rule.  The agency assumed the “power to dismantle local zoning so communities have what it considers the right mix of economic, racial and ethnic diversity. A finding of discriminatory behavior, or allegations of discrimination, would no longer be necessary.” I do not think there is any question this clause was inserted into the new zoning legislation to facilitate Mount Laurel, NJ style fair-share housing lawsuits against suburban municipalities.

The Open Communities Alliance (OCA) pushed hard to get their fair-share housing proposal passed. While they could not get it over the finish line, they successfully inserted the AFFH clause, which serves as a judicial backdoor, into the new zoning legislation. Their hope is to force towns into building their quota of affordable housing by court-mandated settlements, as is now commonplace in New Jersey. Our elected state representatives, while stating they fully support local control, in effect voted for the New Jersey-fication of Ridgefield.

If you are skeptical of my argument, please watch the “Zoning for Equity” presentation by OCA. You will see a Lamont administration official talking casually about litigation and stating they were interested in creating “good trouble in order to make real change.” In the accompanying report, OCA denigrated Ridgefield’s innovative Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) provision as “patently inadequate,” despite evidence ADU’s can be a significant source of new affordable housing. It also “estimated that Ridgefield would need to construct more than 1,500 affordable housing units over the next decade in order to shoulder its “fair share” of the regional need.” OCA was also recently involved in a proposal to overturn zoning in the town of Woodbridge to allow the construction of a four-unit rental building smack in the middle of a quiet single-family neighborhood. For better or worse, zoning is the method we have chosen to protect the legitimate property rights homeowners and the housing advocates simply want to strip it away. This is all hugely consequential and radical.

I understand the importance of being able to build a variety of new housing, but our existing affordable housing strategy (8-30(g)) and the whole program put forward by Desegregate CT, OCA, and other housing advocates is seriously flawed. Everything needs to be questioned, because the better alternatives have not been discussed.

It seems like a long time ago, but it was just last year the Lamont administration pushed the idea of doubling the population of Connecticut’s cities. This actually made good sense from a regional planning perspective, coupled with the fact that our cities typically have plenty of room to grow. New Urbanist architect Robert Orr stated, “it’s conceivable that more than 70% of New Haven’s land is economically unproductive parking and vacant land.”

When exactly was the decision made to double the size of the suburbs and depopulate the cities instead? It makes no sense. In suburbs across the country central water, sewer, and four lane highways are the norm, not so in Connecticut’s small towns. Encouraging scarce development dollars to go to big sprawling suburban development is a recipe for disaster. There are common sense alternatives that localities can enact, through a community-centered collaborative approach, to facilitate the construction of diverse housing that respects the scale of our small towns.

Our focus should be on creating vibrant cities with a variety of high-density housing. This will mean addressing some long-standing problems: the failure of our urban schools, disastrous city finances, the failure of public housing, failed social welfare policy, repairing the damage of urban renewal, and quality of life.

This is the way forward, not blowing up our small towns with look-alike apartment buildings.