Will zoning laws in Connecticut catch up with the new realities?

Photo of Duo Dickinson
Connecticut real estate properties map. Text design. Connecticut US state realty creative concept. Icons of houses with gardens in the shape of a map of Connecticut. Vector illustration.

Connecticut real estate properties map. Text design. Connecticut US state realty creative concept. Icons of houses with gardens in the shape of a map of Connecticut. Vector illustration.

Ivan Burchak / Getty Images / iStockphoto

There was a time when (forgive the sexism) a man’s home was his castle.

That ownership imperative meant that single-family zoning was the law of suburban America for three generations after World War II. In the 21st century, climate change, sustainability, New Urbanism and now COVID-19 have all raised the question of “density” — more people living on each acre of land.

Connecticut has some of the most established and built-out suburban communities in America. There is now precious little land left for residential development — so little that “tear-downs” has become a word for new homes replacing perfectly viable buildings deemed unnacceptable. That scarcity has meant that housing costs, and taxes, are among the highest anywhere in the country as well.

When need butts up against opportunity change happens. But change, as someone once said, is hard. In the light of a pandemic the density of living in mid- and high-rises in New York City is now newly dangerous. In the full apprehension of climate change more people living closer together creates less carbon footprint and thus lessening the cost on infrastructure. The competition between property value and social good is coming to a head in one building type, not new, but newly important.

Across the country the legality of “Accessory Dwelling Units” is being debated, and zoning laws are being changed. There is a growing drumbeat to modify local zoning codes to accept greater flexibility beyond the freestanding single-family home zoning that has dominated suburban life for three generations. The larger wheels of sustainability, diversity and increasing the value of our homes have meant new ways of thinking about how we protect communities in the ways zoning codes restrict uses.

The fight is clearly outlined in the Stamford zoning code, where “Quick Facts” on single-family zoning outlines “you cannot divide your house” into separate places to live, even for relatives. Whereas since 2007, Westport is more open to providing an opportunity to increase its affordable housing units while maintaining a “single-family appearance.” But this new desire for density has meant that separate structures are proposed on existing single family building lots with homes already built upon them, creating a separate dwelling unit.

Ridgefield allows such Accessory Dwelling Units (PDU’s) but places full restrictions on any separate building occupied beyond the primary residence in a single-family zoning district. These restrictions are used in different forms for the growing number of towns that are allowing for PDU’s across the country.

The size of these additional buildings are restricted — in Ridgefield the unit has to be under 900 square feet. The use is restricted — in Ridgefield to one bedroom only. Parking is always an issue, and Ridgefield requires additional parking. Other towns require deed restrictions that exclude non-family members, or renting, or even use for the building beyond anyone who lives in the primary residence.

But even those restrictions do not convince some towns to allow anything to change the one-family-per-building-site basis for their residential zoning. In 2018 Hearst Connecticut quoted Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton as opposing income-producing apartments in the guise of in-law apartments: “We are trying to protect the integrity of our neighborhoods.” Greenwich limits occupancy of separate apartments in single family zones to people over 62 years old, and for occupants to prove it every year.

The issue of more than one family living in a single-family zone district has been in front of local zoning boards for a generation, but there are new pressures. Beyond the “sustainable” argument for density COVID-19 is compelling people to move from nearby cities to these single-family zoned communities. In the past some town plans (like Madison) officially advocated “sewer avoidance” — which allowed towns to accommodate more people on building lot than a separate septic system can accommodate. However, new septic system technologies that are smaller, and more effective, can allow for greater numbers of people to live on one site.

The issues are complex. What about the benefits of intergenerational living in one place? Why shouldn’t you be allowed to expand your home without “adding on” and killing trees and making massive homes? Should zoning promote income diversity? As parents age, and children cannot afford to live separately in Connecticut should several generations of families be allowed to live on one site in their own dwelling units?

Beyond that, the post pandemic economy will be different from the one we have now. We may need to expand the use of single-family homes to recognize home offices. Costs may increase to the point where the homes purchased generations ago provide an income stream (for both property taxes for towns and rental income for homeowners)?

As we come out of sequestration, get vaccinated, and look to the future, the landscape will change. Like the three bears’ porridge, the density of The City may be “too hot,” the isolation of the single-family home may be “too cold,” but something in between may be “just right.”

Duo Dickinson is a Madison-based architect and writer.