P&Z Chair: Those Advocating for State Affordable Housing Laws ‘Have Largely Ignored’ New Canaan’s Ongoing Efforts

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The chair of New Canaan’s Planning & Zoning Commission said during the appointed body’s most recent meeting that he’s given testimony on proposed state legislation regarding affordable housing.

The arguments behind “a number of bills” under consideration by the Connecticut General Assembly is “that historical and current zoning regulations have and continue to propagate exclusionary zoning in the state of Connecticut,” John Goodwin said during P&Z’s regular meeting, held March 30 via videoconference.

“Meaning the argument is they keep housing costs high and then exclude lower income families from more affluent communities. One of the key bills is Bill 1024 some of the key provisions of that bill is 50% of the downtown area or 50% of an area within a half-mile of a transit station—that is, the New Canaan Train Station, in our case—would be subject to four or more unit housing as-of-right, meaning that if somebody came in and wanted to build a four-unit project there’s little that the Planning & Zoning Commission could do to control that development. In addition there would be no parking requirements for that development. So the bottom line is we would be limited in terms of our local control. There’s also another bill that would tax town residents if they did not achieve 10% affordable housing limits in towns.”

Yet New Canaan’s P&Z Commission already believes there’s a need increase affordable housing, as well as “workforce” and senior housing, Goodwin said, though those behind the proposed legislation in Hartford “have largely ignored” the town’s efforts to accomplish its goals. Goodwin said he has submitted testimony to the state legislature that he is “concerned about the quality and torturous reasoning behind some of the input that you are receiving that appears to be the construction of the proposed legislation.”

“I am an analyst by training, and so for the past few months I have taken the time to listen to, read and study the arguments behind the premise of much of the proposed legislation, which is local application of Planning and Zoning regulations is exclusionary and restricts the supply of affordable housing,” Goodwin said, citing his testimony. “I find the arguments questionable, and often based upon incorrect data and/or incorrect reasoning.”

His comments came during a general update to P&Z on legislation at the state level. 

Goodwin referred at times to a P&Z planning subcommittee that’s been focused on affordable housing in New Canaan. Led by Commissioner Krista Neilson, the subcommittee is studying the state’s definition of affordable housing, as well as tools New Canaan already uses to increase the amount of such units here (such as a fund that’s continuously fed by fees on building permit applications) and what else the town may do. 

Neilson during the subcommittee’s March 30 meeting (held prior to the full Commission’s) focused on “inclusionary zoning”—an incentive-based program where a certain number of units in new private developments are designated as affordable in exchange for bonuses offered to developers such as density, height, floor-area ratio and coverage. 

Other lower Fairfield county municipalities such as Stamford, Greenwich, Westport, Darien and Norwalk already have provisions for such inclusionary zoning developments, Neilson said. Based largely on what those towns have, Neilson offered some details of how inclusionary zoning could work in New Canaan in terms of how it would be counted, what parts of town it would cover, by what process it would be approved and what would its duration would be.

Goodwin said that although those advocating for the new state laws say Special Permits are bad, “in 16 years of Planning & Zoning service we have approved over 96% of such applications.”

“We are using applications not to restrict affordable housing or other types of housing, but simply using them to try to control what is put into our town,” he said. “ ‘Character’ is an evil term, yet we have never used character from an anti-affordable housing perspective. I see that parking is not needed, yet in New Canaan we are on a spur with mediocre train service. You need a car in New Canaan. Finally, I am concerned these of input have a priori decided their goals and have not made an effort to understand the facts on the ground of what smaller towns have done to both affordable and diverse housing.”

Goodwin also testified that New Canaan is one of the few towns in the state with its own Affordable Housing Fund, established 14 years ago.

“We already have multiple zones for multifamily and smaller-footprint housing, including a Multifamily Zone, an Apartment Zone and specific affordable housing zones,” he said, citing his testimony. “Local zoning commissions have been criticized as not having expertise. One of the arguments is that we, our local commissions, don’t know what we are doing. New Canaan’s Planning and Zoning Commission includes two architects, with one of them New York City-based, two former planners from large cities, specifically Charlotte and New Orleans, and the lead lender from one of the largest affordable lending banks in Connecticut. I would argue that we have more expertise on this Commission than some of the groups that we have listened to on the other side.”

Commissioner Dick Ward said local officials including Goodwin have made it clear that a “one-size-fits-all” statute doesn’t work. 

“New Canaan is not the evil town that perhaps some of the people on the other side think it is,” Ward said.

Commissioner John Kriz said Goodwin’s testimony was “very well stated” and, he hoped, “very helpful” to Connecticut lawmakers.

Formerly a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals, Kriz said that one thing he’s learned in serving on both appointed bodies is that “one size rarely fits all.”

“Each location is special as far as where it’s located, how large it is, shape and position of the lot, height, hills, ledges and all the rest,” Kriz said. “And these are issues that I think this Commission spends an enormous amount of time on in order to try and get it right. Because we want to get it right the first time, and I think it’s important for the debt we owe to the citizens of New Canaan that we try to do that and we try to be very specific on each and every application.”

4 thoughts on “P&Z Chair: Those Advocating for State Affordable Housing Laws ‘Have Largely Ignored’ New Canaan’s Ongoing Efforts

  1. New Canaan has done a much better job than most with affordable housing and zoning in general. This is what I heard echoed by Sara Bronin, author of HB 1024, which has been revised (the Transportation Oriented Development guidelines to which many objected were removed) and is out of committee. What we’ve achieved on housing–thanks to some experienced planning and construction professionals steering our ship, backed up by a town that cares–has been called out as a success. In fact, it’s what has allowed my family of four with one car to thrive here. These principles aren’t guiding development elsewhere as much as they could be–to the detriment of many communities and our state. My understanding is that outlining and incentivizing best practices, in a framework that allows each town to apply them as appropriate, was the intention here. We already have one-size-fits-all in our state: single-family, car-dependent homes. Even if these bills aren’t the right ones, I’m glad we’re discussing how development can meaningfully drive economic growth, and do it in a way that allows each town to define its own character.

  2. Seems like every developer wants to build high-end, luxury properties. They want to sell or rent to people who have money, not to people who don’t have money. Providing incentives to change that sounds like exactly the right way to go. How do we make moderate- and low-income housing an attractive business proposition? That’s exactly what’s needed for senior housing, for our many seniors downsizing from their houses, exhausting their savings, living on Social Security, in need of ground-floor, handicapped-accessible apartments or condos in safe areas. It’s also what’s needed for housing our many workers, those who don’t have the income of a lawyer or executive.

    Those pushing this legislation in Hartford as a way to increase racial integration should perhaps do more investigating into the causes of the problem, rather than just assuming it’s zoning’s fault, jumping on the latest idea to go viral. We might make a lot more progress with programs to help the ‘economically-disadvantaged’ break out of the mold, succeed. New Canaan’s ABC house is one of many such programs. If the down-trodden were to suddenly start succeeding, everyone would be much happier.

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