At Monday’s marathon public hearing by the CGA Planning & Development committee, 140 people signed up to testify, mostly on a proposed HB 5429, a “Transit Oriented Development” bill, TOD for short, which was fully written, as opposed to being presented as a draft, which is more typical.
The bill would allow high density housing to be developed around train stations with the goals of increasing supply overall and adding affordable units. The bill specifies 10% affordable units. It would allow, as of right, development of 15 residential units per acre, in a 1/2-mile radius of a train station.
In that 1/2-mile radius, there would be exemptions for steep slopes, rivers, wetlands, and, of course, roads, rail lines and highways.
However, as many noted, there are still hundreds of acres of land in that “circle” with potential for development, or redevelopment, given that in Greenwich, for example, land around the four train stations is already developed.
Proponents called the bill the lowest of low hanging fruit and the answer to one-size-fits-all single family zoning.
“Westport has 97.7% of its land zoned for ‘as of right’ single family housing, and Greenwich has 98.4% zoned for ‘as of right’ single family housing,” said Sara Bronin, founder of Desegregate CT.
Proponents said the bill would increase affordable housing with the 10% requirement, and overall supply of housing, in turn, driving down the cost of housing.
Critics called it one-size-fits-all zoning from the state level, removing local control, and precluding public input since TOD would be ‘as of right’ meaning no P&Z public hearings would be required. They say 10% is too low, especially considering 8-30g developments require 30% affordable. And, they said, that developers would rush to develop with the lower, 10% requirement.
Already, in Greenwich there are about 14 affordable housing proposals submitted to P&Z under state statute 8-30g, most being proposed in the past six months, and some of them are very large with dozens if not hundreds of units proposed.
Elected officials testified first, starting with Greenwich’s State Rep Meskers (D-150), who noted three of Greenwich’s four stations are in residential neighborhoods.
“I would not like to see the right of development ceded to the state in what are typically not commercial areas,” he said. “These are small neighborhoods. (It’s) going to be developing luxury housing. It violates the spirit of what the neighborhoods are concerned with.”
State Rep Stephanie Thomas (D-143) who represents Norwalk, Wilton and Westport said she’d grown up in affordable housing. “Even though my parents worked multiple jobs, they couldn’t afford the rent,” she said. “What’s written would not have helped my family.”
“The high cost of land in my part of the state creates problems that inventory alone would not be able to solve,” Thomas said. “We cannot rely on the private sector to solve our affordable housing crisis…developing some of our most valuable land at the rate of one affordable unit per acre will not move the needle.”
Greenwich First Selectman Fred Camillo testified that the laws would create more impervious surface and worsen flooding.
Committee co-chair Cristin Rep McCarthy Vahey (D-133) serving Fairfield, disagreed with Camillo saying, “We’ve found that some older developments from the 40s, 50s and 60s have greater environmental impact than some of the new ones.”
“Coming on the heels of a 500-year flood where every municipal leader I’ve spoken to have said their infrastructure is old…When you take away soil and add impervious surface with a one-size-fits-all from the state, you’re going to exacerbate an already bad situation,” he said. “This bill would wreak havoc on communities within a half mile (of a train station), add to congestion, and affect home values.”
He said it was hard to reconcile that 140 people had signed up to testify at the hearing, and yet the bill would deny the same right to the public by making the multi-family developments ‘as of right.”
“It’s very undemocratic,” he said.
Rep Michael Winkler (D-56) representing Vernon, said someone building a single family house was not entitled to a pubic hearing.
Rep McCarthy Vahey (D-133 serving Fairfield) said the state had both an affordable housing issue and a supply issue. “We’re all trying to figure out how to grow our state.”
“I’d focus more on jobs and lower taxes. The people will come,” Camillo said.
State Rep Jonathan Steinberg (D-136) from Westport said shoreline areas were vastly different from rural areas.
“Train stations in my area are surrounded by beaches, neighborhoods and wetlands,” he said. “They’re not fitting for ‘as of right’ transit oriented development.”
While the bill says wetlands would be exempt from land to be developed for transit oriented development under 5429, Jennifer Tooker, First Selectman in Westport, noted that about 45% of land in her town was wetlands.
“The issue of flooding is a very big issue in Westport,” she said.
Danielle Dobin, who chairs the Westport P&Z commission, said higher density around train stations might sound reasonable, but the bill “failed spectacularly” upon careful review. She said 5429 “completely guts 8-30g.”
“Why would a developer ever choose to use 8-30g and include 30% affordable on site when they can build, as of right, with only 10% somewhere else, i.e. around the train stations?” she asked.
Dobin said under the proposed bill, thousands of new units would be built around train stations, as of right, and the way the bill was written, the language was not specific as to what the “circle” radius incorporates.
“Where is the circle? Where is the radius of the circle? What’s included? What’s not included?” she asked.
“Just over 500 acres exist within a circle with a 1⁄2 mile radius. Once streets, wetlands, etc are removed, there’s likely an average of 325 buildable acres,” Dobin continued. “At a gross average of 15 units per acre, this would require towns to zone for approximately 4,875 units around each train station.”
Dobin said the concern was a radical change in density.
“How could the Greenwich P&Z possibly create zoning allowing a gross average of 15 units per acre within a 1/2-mile each of their four train stations – this totals 19,500 units as of right – without scrapping single family zoning in large part, or creating patches of skyscrapers?” Dobin asked.
Dobin said the proposed law would be a disincentive to such uses as co-working spaces, small office buildings and small to medium sized businesses.
“If in order to allow zoning of 15 units an acre, you wouldn’t want to also offer a retail of office component element to these developments, or they would be skyscrapers,” Dobin said.
And, she said the distance of commutes mattered, especially when proponents of 5426 pointed to Massachusetts having passed a transit oriented development law.
Dobin said the Massachusetts comparison to Connecticut didn’t work. The suburbs of Boston have much shorter commutes than the Fairfield County suburbs have to New York City, with an average 80+ minute commute.
Cambridge, MA, for example, is a mile away from central Boston with a six minute train ride, and the closest Connecticut suburb to New York City is Greenwich, which is 31 miles to midtown, and the fastest train taking 47 minutes.
In Bethel, where there is one train station, for example, 5429 would permit, as of right, almost 4,800 units.
“There’s only 4,300 housing units in the whole town now,” she said.
“This gets really out of whack when you look at a place like Greenwich with four train stations. That would then mean close to 20,000 new units would be necessary to be zoned either right around one station, or shared around all four train stations.”
Dobin said Greenwich only has 24,560 existing units today.
“When advocates write, ‘It’ll all be fine because the local P&Z’s will have the opportunity to zone where to put these units,’ … it feels a little bit like Orwellian double-speak to me.”
Dobin said the downside of HB 5429 was that that with “as of right” developments, public hearings would not be required. She said hyper-local feedback was invaluable because residents share detailed information about traffic and pedestrian patterns.
Desegregate CT founder Sara Bronin said the 40 towns with train stations were selected because unlike bus routes, train lines and and stations were permanent, and the state had made substantial investments in them.
“(Towns) would establish the architectural standards if they wished to. They would select the type of housing – freestanding housing, live/work housing, mixed use including commercial housing, or stand alone multi-family housing,” Bronin said. “The bill would also (have) a 10% affordable component, and towns could add more. A variety of lands would be exempted, including wetlands, preservation and conservation land.”
She said the bill would also explicitly allow for towns with multiple stations to choose just one of those stations to satisfy the overall goal.
Harking back to Ms Dobin’s comment about vagueness on what land would be included for development, Bronin said it would be easy for town planners to make that determination.
She said there was a single page analysis for each of the 62 train stations in the state. (Click here for Old Greenwich)
“Every single town planner has layers in GIS. (They) can work with you or city leaders for the most accurate number of units that can be zoned,” Bronin said.
She said because much of the state was along the shore, her group made a conservative estimate that only 25% would be “really prime buildable area.”
She said the goal of 15 units per acre in a 1/2-mile radius had already been satisfied in Stamford, New Haven and Hartford.
“Those are our cities,” said State Rep Kimberly Fiorello (R-149). “This is why people are bristling at the kind of bills you guys are putting forward – which you also claim this will increase affordable housing, but it really doesn’t.”
“We think it does,” Ms Bronin replied. “Towns can always do more than permit 15 units per acre and a lot more affordable housing. This is to get the ball rolling.”
Bill Galvin of Greenwich described the bill as “a handout to the development community” that would do little to create affordable housing, and put hundreds of acres of prime real estate under control of developers, with minimal oversight.
“Respecfully, as tax payers, when we see this type of give-away to a politically connected and moneyed interest … in other parts of the world, we often suspect some form of corruption,” Galvin said.
Both Rep McCarthy Vahey and Rep Joe Zullo (R-99) representing East Haven, asked Ms Bronin about supply and demand – specifically whether increasing the supply would bring down the cost of housing.
Bronin described the concept as “Economics 101,” and that adding to supply would lower cost.
She said her organization’s website featured links to economic studies.
“The market in Fairfield County is different,” McCarthy Vahey said, adding that redevelopment around train stations might result in loss of local businesses.
“Walkable neighborhoods strengthen small businesses,” Bronin replied.
She described the bill as the lowest of low hanging fruit.
Ms Fiorello said the term used in the bill, “minimum overall average gross density” was confusing.
As for Bronin’s comment that Connecticut was already good at ‘as of right’ zoning, a comment repeated by Rep Winkler, Fiorello pushed back.
“Single family building is very different from multi-family building by a transportation center. There is a lot more involved.”
Further she said, the bill did not specify that commercial uses would be included ‘as of right.’
“Where in this bill does it say it has ‘as of right’ building can include commercial?” she asked. “Commercial is important to these transit areas. Show us where it says they can include multi use as of right.”
Peter Harrison, Desegregate CT’s inaugural director, pushed back what he said was the idea that the train system was tailored exclusively for people commuting to New York City.
He said people living and working in the state use the train lines. He gave the example of an intra-state commute from Bridgeport to Waterbury, and said creating more homes in transit-oriented communities would drive economic activity.
“There’s also 110,000 jobs in Connecticut that employers say they can’t fill,” Bronin said. “It’s not about commuting to NYC or commuting at all. It’s about creating housing for people who could fill those jobs, but can’t move to Connecticut because there’s not adequate housing options for them.”
Ms Fiorello asked Mr. Harrison from Desegregate CT if he was a paid lobbyist.
Mr. Harrison said advocating for DeSegregate CT’s proposals was just one part of his job.
Other people from non profits collaborating with Desegregate CT testified in favor of the bill, including Kiley Gosselin, executive director of Partnership for Strong Communities.
She talked about the need for safe, affordable housing in an equitable community of one’s choice. She said while the state faces a housing shortage, there were train stations surrounded by parking lots and single family homes. “We can’t grow our economy without more housing,” she said, adding, like others in favor of 5429, that the state had invested significantly in train stations.
Donna Hamzy, advocacy manager for Connecticut Conference of Municipalities said, “Many municipalities have and continue to pursue TOD, providing for more walkable, bike-able areas, mixed-use commercial and residential buildings, job-accessible housing, and retail shops around fixed transit sites,” she said.
State Rep Fiorello said recent development was mostly residential and mostly luxury.
Deb Polun of CT Association for Community Action (CAFCA) said, “More housing addresses our vision for a more just and equitable world.”
Ms Fiorello asked Polun to elaborate on how 5429 would increase affordable housing.
“We think this bill will help achieve that by creating more housing by transit stations and having some of it affordable, and increasing supply will reduce costs across the board,” Polun said.
“It’s more a bill to support density for luxury housing,” said Fiorello who represents Greenwich, where already high land costs have increased significantly during the pandemic.
“There’s concerns about ‘building skyscrapers,'” Polun said. “That’s not how I see this bill.”
“Sure I think some of it can be luxury,” Polun continued, adding that while the bill specifies 10%, she’d prefer 20% or 30%.
Ms Bronin said not to conflate HB 5429 with 8-30g. “They are separate frameworks,” she said. “8-30g gives developes a remedy in court.”
Mr. Harrison from Desegregate CT said creating housing and density close to train stations would protect Connecticut’s forests and farmlands from sprawl. He said protecting those natural spaces would combat climate change and lower carbon footprints.
“We can’t do one-size-fits-all big houses on big lots,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to reverse.”
“It’s getting folks to drive less, less vehicle miles traveled, and in terms of carbon emissions, to get folks out of cars into walkability, reduce carbon footprints and protect natural spaces,” Harrison said.
Dan Lind, a scientist from Easton refuted that theory.
“More people generate more pollution,” Lind said. And all those people, even in your proposed development – they won’t necessarily just be walking around and taking trains. They will necessarily be using cars at some point. …They have to be supplied with food and other things. How is your food delivered? By trucks. The idea that putting 15 units where there were one, and somehow you’re decreasing point source pollution doesn’t make sense.”
“The issue is sewage, to be blunt,” he said. “There’s only so much that can be put into Long Island Sound. We cannot use wastewater treatment plants as a panacea. There’s only so much sewage you can put in a septic type area, for example, and most of our land is on septic. I disagree fundamentally that we need more density for density sake. I think Fairfield County is over-crowded. We need less density, and the rest of the state is not crowded.”
Lent said Long Island Sound was still terribly polluted. “All the fish and lobster are dying out. It’s not really clean all the way from Greenwich to New Haven. You have to go out east to get to cleaner water. We call it ‘the dead zone,'” Lind said.
“Every time it rains in Connecticut, Long Island Sound gets polluted,” he added, noting that beaches already close after rain beause of sewage problems.
Francis Pickering, director of Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WestCOG), said what the bill got wrong was incentivizing residential use exclusively.
He said TOD by definition includes a mixture of housing, office, retail and/or other commercial development and amenities integrated into a walkable neighborhood. In fact, he said it would squeeze out doctor’s offices, social services, retail, gyms, hotels, restaurants, entertainment venues and cultural attractions.
Pickering added, “When I first read the bill I thought it was a sloppily written draft, but when I re-read it it, and saw, ‘Minimum Average Gross Density’ – that was not selected accidentally. That’s not in any state law.”
“It’s probably confusing on purpose,” he said.
He said HB 5429 was neither about TOD, nor affordable housing, and described it as ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’ and would result in deregulation that would benefit “a select few at the expense of the rest, masquerading as progressive.”
“People want to live near train stations because they can take it to the doctor’s office or cinema, not to a friend’s house for dinner,” Pickering continued, adding that as soon as a developer seeks to include commercial in a proposal, it would require a public hearing, and that would trigger a hard look at infrastructure. Pursuing residential-only would be easier and faster for developers.
Pickering questioned the formula of 15-unit per acre on a 1/2-mile radius that would require towns to permit up to about 5,000 housing units around each transit station.
“In many cases, such development would exceed the capacity of roads, water and sewer facilities, and schools,” he said adding that some costs might necessitate major capital investments on infrastructure, and be born by existing taxpayers and tenants, making 5429 regressive.
Further, he said the law would result in a “land rush,” because once the 1/2-mile radius achieves 15 units per acre, the ‘as of right’ approval extinguishes, creating an incentive to build as fast and as densely as possible.”
“This is not a recipe for orderly or responsible development,” he said. “This is not a recipe for orderly or responsible development, but rather a scattering of large and hurriedly constructed apartment buildings/complexes, with the corresponding potential for otherwise avoidable problems and litigation.”