RIDGEFIELD — Desegrating the state — racially, economically — is the challenge an alliance of political activists have set their sights on, and to achieve that ambitious goal their initial focus is to open up what they view as exclusionary land use practices. Local leaders in Ridgefield are paying attention.

“This is a local control issue,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi told fellow selectmen. “We do not want to disrupt that. We need to protect that.”

“This is a slippery slope,” Selectman Bob Hebert said. “...I think there are reasons we have local government.”

Desegregation, equality, racial justice — those are goals few local political leaders would disagree with, never mind openly oppose.

But land use regulations like planning and zoning rules are seen by many as the scaffolding of a system that keeps Ridgefield leafy and green, not too crowded, peaceful and quiet and safe, that protects the wetlands, the cherished small town look of Main Street, and the quality of town schools — dismantling that is not an agenda that local politicians seem eager to embrace.

“We can and should do more to work toward having a more diverse community,” said State Rep. John Frey. “Perhaps working to recruit more minority teachers, police officers and firefighters would have a more immediate impact. Throwing out zoning goes against home rule and would definitely have the potential to seriously change the character of our towns.”

Marconi seemed wary, but not flat-out opposed, in the Board of Selectmen’s July 15 discussion. “There are people on both sides of this issue,” Marconi said. “...I don’t have a problem with a special committee being formed to study it.”

Stringent land use regulations — Ridgefield is largely a town of single-family homes and most of it is zoned for 2- and 3-acre residential lots — are also viewed as helping hold up local property values. In the first six months of 2020, the average price of a single-family house sold in Ridgefield was over $762,000, according to the Ridgefield Board of Realtors. Condominium units averaged over $258,000.

The Desegregate Connecticut alliance proposes to open up the state’s land use from the top down, by changing state laws through the legislature in Hartford in ways that would reshape what local towns can do with their planning and zoning practices.

More inclusive

“To desegregate Connecticut, we must overhaul our land use laws to be more inclusive by design,” the group says on its website. “They must expand housing diversity. They must increase housing supply. And they must improve processes that thwart good development.

“We are focused on land use reforms — not property tax reforms or housing finance reform — because we believe that land use is low hanging-fruit: we already know what to do, and it can be done at no cost to the state.”

What Ridgefield officials view as “local control” to be preserved from meddling by Hartford, Desegregate Connecticut sees as a system that puts up regulatory fences and price walls to keep economically disadvantaged and minority people locked out of nicer areas, and trapped in neighborhoods with poor schools and inadequate resources.

“Connecticut’s racial and economic segregation results from decades of backwards government programs and policies,” the group says. “Our laws prevent us from having an adequate housing supply and diversity of housing for people of all incomes and backgrounds...

“Restrictive zoning, costly review processes, and arbitrary impediments thwart affordable and multifamily housing development. … In southwest Connecticut, it is 3.5 times more expensive to live near a high-achieving school than a low-achieving one.

“This reality has severe consequences. Children who grow up in low-income segregated neighborhoods make less money, go to college at lower rates, and have other measurably worse life outcomes than those who grew up in integrated neighborhoods.

“Racially segregated areas have much larger income gaps by race. And neighborhoods with high concentrations of racial minorities lack access to grocery stores, child care, and vital services. There are economic and environmental consequences, too.”

The advocacy group appears to be acting on the belief the current moment — with concerns about racial justice heightened by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — is an opportunity address long-festering issues of exclusionary land use in the state.

Desegregate Connecticut offers this self-description on its website: “We are a collaborative of people and institutions who believe we have a moment to change statewide land use laws to ensure a more just and equitable Connecticut.”

Agenda for change

The group has an agenda of very specific proposals to reshape land use in Connecticut. Some are in bills that have already been put forward and had some committee review.

The Council of Small Town (COST) put on a webinar about the proposed changes to Connecticut land use laws that some Ridgefield selectmen and also town planning and zoning officials listened in on.

Here are some of the bills being pushed by Desegregate Connecticut, as described by COST.

The Zoning Enabling Act Reorganization, House Bill 5132:

  “Reorganizes the Zoning Enabling Act to provide greater clarity in an effort to assist land use commissions and the public in complying with the provisions;

  “Deletes consideration of the ‘character of a district’ and its peculiar suitability for particular uses;

  “Establishes a working group to develop guidelines for municipal compliance, how compliance should be determined, and possible incentives for compliance.”

Expanding “housing authority jurisdiction” is the subject of Senate Bill 110. According to COST, this bill:

  “Authorizes a housing authority to expand its jurisdiction up to 30 miles outside the municipal borders to include certain high and very high opportunity areas, as determined by the Department of Housing;

  “Does not provide any opportunity for the affected municipality to provide input or approval.”

And House Bill 5303 addressed the “training of land use commissioners,” COST says, adding that it:

  “Authorizes municipalities to adopt an ordinance requiring planning and zoning officials to obtain four hours of training;

  “Specifies the entities that may provide training, which may include online distance learning (does not include COST, CCM [Connecticut Conference of Municipalities] as providers)

  “Requires municipalities to certify that their planning and zoning officials have completed training;

Special session?

COST also described in the webinar what it called Desegregate Connecticut’s “special session agenda” — not specific bills, but goals for the legislature’s short summer session of the legislature, which began this week. These included:

  “Enable ‘Accessory Apartments’ by providing that one accessory apartment be allowed as-of-right on a large, single-family lot, as long as an apartment is under a certain size (maximum 1,200 SF), and it satisfies the building code.

  “Allow two-to-four-unit, small-scale development in 50% of the area within a 1/2-mile radius of fixed transit stations and a 1/4-mile radius of commercial corridors.

  “Provide that 10 percent of land in towns with 5,000-plus residents be zoned for two-to-four-unit small scale developments, multifamily housing, or mixed-use buildings;

  “Cap parking requirements at 1 space for a studio or 1-bedroom unit and 2 spaces for a 2-plus bedroom unit.

  “Require multifamily buildings to be treated the same as other residential buildings when it comes to special permit reviews or public hearings.

  “Require land use commissioners to complete 4 hours of training per year.

  “Eliminate consideration of the ‘character’ of an area in approving projects.

  “Convene a working group to create model zoning regulations that can be adopted locally.

  “Cap town fees for housing applications and consultants and ensure that multifamily application fees be commensurate with other residential application fees.

  “Modernize traffic and sewer standards by enabling alternative on-site sewage systems and changing traffic standards from the number of vehicles generated by a development to the more modern ‘vehicle-miles-traveled’ standard.”

8-30g comparison

Frey, who is retiring from representing the 111th District, which covers nearly all of Ridgefield, compared the initiative by Desegregate Connecticut to the state’s 8-30g affordable housing law.

The 8-30g statute has caused considerable angst among Ridgefield officials and neighborhoods by allowing developers to ignore most local zoning rules if 30 percent of the units in the project they’re proposing would qualify as affordable housing under the state’s definition.

“This is yet another effort led by urban leaders — the New Haven Mayor specifically — that would have serious negative impacts to suburban communities such as Ridgefield (much like 8-30g, the affordable housing statute, which didn’t have the intended desegregation impact but did put our neighborhoods at risk),” Frey said.

Frey didn’t think Desegregate Connecticut would have much luck in getting its proposals on the legislative agenda for the short summer session — and he added that the proposals are so sweeping he didn’t feel the short session, which has no provision for public hearings, would be appropriate.

“The governor’s call for special session is very specific to four items and this is not one of them. It will definitely not be taken up in this special session,” Frey said.

“Frankly, this is such a radical change that it should be discussed in regular session with public hearings allowing ample opportunity for public testimony, and debate, etc. Those public comment opportunities are not available during a special session,” Frey said.

Ridgefield’s State Senator, Will Haskell, a Democrat representing the 26th District, didn’t sound so different from Frey, a Republican, on the need to move with caution.

“The special session officially began today, and this is not on the agenda,” he said in an email Tuesday. “Instead, we are tackling the issues of police accountability, insulin price caps, access to tele-health and absentee ballots for the upcoming election.

“As the presentation to COST made clear, zoning reform is an incredibly complicated and nuanced topic,” Haskell said. “It deserves the vetting of a regular legislative session, when the public has an opportunity to weigh in during the public hearing process. The next regular session will begin in January.

“While I don't serve on the Housing Committee, I will continue listening to and learning from my constituents about the role of zoning in our community. I hope constituents feel free to reach out with me to share their perspective over the coming months.”

In their July 15 discussion, various members of the Board of Selectman expressed concerns about aspects of the Desegregate Connecticut agenda.

Selectman Bob Hebert didn’t like the idea of making “the character of a district” off-limits as a consideration when planning and zoning officials are judging development applications.

“We want to protect the character of the town,” he said.

“It seems like it’s another arm of 8-30g, where we’re not having any control,” said Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark.

First Selectman Marconi worried about revising standards to allow more “alternative on-site sewage systems.”

He noted that he’d already opposed such a system — unsuccessfully — at a new multifamily project on Danbury Road near the Recreation Center driveway.

“I have a serious concern with a septic system serving 30 units,” Marconi said.

The project at 233 Danbury Road is a 55-and-older community approved under the state’s 8-30g affordable housing law.

Called “The Coach Homes at Ridgefield” the project has single-bedroom units being offered “in the low 300’s” and two-bedroom units in “the high 300s,” according to advertising. The last week’s property transfers show one until there sold for just under $133,000 and another closed at over $372,000.

The building is advertised as “50 percent sold.”

In any case, Marconi said the effort to dramatically retool zoning is something local officials need to keep an eye on — whether it comes somehow comes up in this summer session, or waits until January.

“I don't know if this is going to make it on the agenda,” Marconi said, “but we’re certainly going to pay a lot of attention to it.”