'Desegregate Connecticut' still has suburban zoning officials talking

With “Desegregate Connecticut” still an active movement among lawmakers in Hartford, zoning officials in towns such as Ridgefield are scanning the legislative horizon for potential changes that would reduce the “local control” of land use that has been largely in their hands for years.

“Southerwestern Connecticut is the focus of much of the attention of Desegregate Connecticut,” Ridgefield Planning and Zoning Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti told commission colleagues.

In a Dec. 1 legislative update for her commission, Mucchetti said that State Sen. Will Haskell (D 26th) had told the chairs of the Ridgefield, Weston and Westport P&Z commissions that he would reach out to Sen. Saud Anwar of South Windsor, who is the “primary drafter” of legislation that “Desegregate Connecticut” advocates plan to put forward in the coming 2021 legislative session.

Haskell had offered to invite Anwar to visit Fairfield County to meet with local officials and exchange perspectives on issues like racial and economic segregation in Connecticut’s housing.

“I think it would be a fabulous opportunity for all of us to just meet and talk and have a conversation,” Mucchetti said.

“Weston and Ridgefield and Hartford and Greenwich will not all be affected by the same piece of legislation the same way,” she said.

New York suburbs

Southwestern Connecticut is in many ways an outlier from the rest of the state since it is part of the New York Metropolitan area, which has major effects on the employment and housing markets — raising rents, housing prices, construction costs.

“Once you take Fairfield County out of the mix, the rest of the state is pretty affordable,” Mucchetti said.

Fairfield County is also different in terms of at least some salaries and tax revenue.

“Fairfield County generates approximately 40 percent of all revenue in State of Connecticut, but we are 16 percent of the population,” Mucchetti said.

But she said recent studies by the regional Western Connecticut Council of Governments — often called “WestCOG” — of housing in western Connecticut show that the image of Fairfield County as only wealthy suburbs made up of single-family homes is misleading.

“There is a lot of housing diversity,” Mucchetti said.

She also said portrayals of Connecticut as one of the most dramatically segregated states — economically and racially — highlight real problems but need context to be well understood.

Recent studies by WestCOG have been done “to show it’s a false narrative to say we are the worst of worst as far a racial segregation in Connecticut.”

Mucchetti said she’d been encouraged by the meeting Haskell had with the trio of P&Z chairmen ”to discuss our concerns with proposed legislation that is still floating around.”

“He was very knowledgeable about what was floating around and very interested in hearing Ridgefield’s concerns, and also Weston and Westport’s concerns,” she said.

Rent or buy-in?

“Mr. Haskell was very engaged,” Mucchetti said. “We had some ideas that came out of that meeting that have since gone on to other meetings.”

One idea she felt was promising was the potential to direct housing trust money not into more rental projects, but into helping people with down payments to buy houses in the suburbs.

“They get the opportunity to build up equity, they become permanent residents of the community,” Mucchetti said.

“It’s a challenge how you approach it with mortgage lenders,” she said.

“It’s an idea that’s bubbling up.”

Accessory units

Another planning concept that’s gaining new popularity is “accessory dwelling units,” or “ADUs,” a second living unit in what appears to be a single-family home. It’s a concept Ridgefield’s P&Z adopted years ago, under the name “accessory apartments.”

“Accessory Dwelling Units — ADUs — are really being looked at as an opportunity,” Mucchetti said.

Affected by regional market forces, they aren’t a solution to all the problems.

“ADUs are not always affordable,” she said.

The Westport P&Z chair said a 1,200-square-foot ADU there might rent for $5,000 a month.

“There’s nothing affordable about that,” Mucchetti said.

Another approach that might help would be for zoning officials to reconsider the “traditional definition of a family” used when discussing single-family and various two-, three- and other multifamily units.

8-30g

There was some discussion of state statue 8-30g, which allows developers to ignore most zoning restrictions if their projects are designed to have at least 30 percent of residential units available within the state’s somewhat complex affordability guidelines.

“Ridgefield has been fortunate in that most of the affordable projects we’ve seen have been brought to us by people who live in town,” Mucchetti said.

Ridgefield has so far seen mostly cooperative efforts by these local developers to put forward projects designed to fit in fairly well with their neighborhoods.

Other towns in the area have had 8-30g used for projects with “hundreds of units” on relatively small parcels of land.

These urban-style developments can overburden suburban infrastructure.

“It challenges water and sewer and challenges the roads,” she said.

Haskell: ‘To listen’

Haskell — a young progressive Democrat whose 26th District includes Ridgefield, Wilton, Weston, Redding and parts of Westport, New Canaan and Bethel — told Hearst Connecticut Media that he thought he’d had a productive meeting with the local P&Z chairs.

“I really appreciated the opportunity to hear from a few Planning and Zoning Chairs in my district, including Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti,” Haskell wrote in an email.

“It's clear that Rebecca and I share many of the same goals: to ensure that Ridgefield can supply housing that is affordable for recent college graduates, new families, and seniors who hope to retire in Connecticut,” he said.

“In my first term, I learned that the most important job of a state senator is to listen. I learned a lot from our conversation, and I know this will be the first of many discussions with local experts on this issue of zoning.”