January 28, 2023 11:06 am
The organization behind a push to build more homes around public transportation stations is back with a proposal that would provide incentives rather than require this kind of growth.
DesegregateCT’s “Work Live Ride” initiative encourages local zoning commissions to create areas for multifamily developments – like apartment complexes or condominiums – within a half-mile of train stations and some bus stops.
The evolving concept is just beginning to make its way through this year’s five-month legislative session in Hartford. A working draft shared on the DesegregateCT website has not yet been raised as a bill.
A previous iteration of the proposal didn’t make it out of committee last year. That bill limited participation to cities and towns with train stations or CTfastrak service, so it didn’t apply to New London County except in its namesake city and Mystic.
The failed bill would have required rapid transit communities to update zoning regulations to allow an overall average of 15 units per acre in the transit districts.
This year’s proposal covers more cities and towns while eliminating the mandate, according to DesegregateCT Director Pete Harrison. It encompasses towns with local bus service, as well as the towns adjacent to them.
He said the changes took into account “good faith” criticisms received during last year’s legislative process. That’s when almost 300 people submitted written testimony for a March public hearing. Among the 178 in opposition to the bill, arguments were made on issues including governmental overreach and an unrealistic, one-size-fits-all approach.
This time around, the advocacy group identified 71 municipalities with at least one regular bus route. While the working draft language only applies to those cities and towns with frequent bus runs, Harrison said that could change.
He expects the proposed legislation to be assigned a bill number next week.
If the bill were to include all communities with bus lines, the list of qualifying “transit communities” could grow from 40 with rapid transit options in last year’s bill to as many as 111 in the new legislation. In New London County, the group identified bus lines in Colchester, East Lyme, Griswold, Groton, Lisbon, Montville, New London, Norwich, Old Lyme and Waterford.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates there are 85,000 more households in Connecticut that need affordable housing than there are places for them to live. The statewide Open Communities Alliance group puts the affordable housing gap at 135,000 households.
The Work Live Ride concept is based on a “carrot and stick” approach, according to Harrison.
Municipalities that opt in to the initiative get the reward, or carrot: access to expert guidance from state-level planning professionals and the opportunity for grant funding for things like water and sewer system expansion and streetscape improvements.
Cities and towns that don’t participate get the punishment, or stick. That means no access to the planning professionals or competitive grants.
“If you want to upgrade your Main Street and have a bunch of beautiful Victorian-looking light posts or build a bike lane or something, that’s great,” he said of the communities that opt out. “You just have to pay for it yourself. We don’t think taxpayer money should be going to communities that don't want to encourage responsible growth.”
The proposal relies on an expanded Office of Responsible Growth, according to Harrison. Operating within the state Office of Policy and Management, the responsible growth focus was established by Gov. Jodi Rell in 2006 to promote transportation, housing and environmental planning.
Harrison said his organization has been advocating for roughly $600,000 to $800,000 in the upcoming state budget primarily to pay for four planners.
OPM spokesman Chris Collibee on Friday said the responsible growth arm currently is made up of a policy development coordinator, an environmental analyst, a planning analyst and a vacant entry-level planning analyst position.
Harrison said advocates are also lobbying for more money in the state Transit-Oriented Development Fund that began in 2015 with awards of up to $2 million each. He did not specify how much they would be requesting.
Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments (RiverCOG) Executive Director Samuel Gold was among those who opposed the legislation last year. He told The Day this week that the new proposal addresses some of his concerns but raises others.
RiverCOG addresses regional planning needs for 17 towns including Lyme, Old Lyme and Old Saybrook.
“My biggest takeaway here is that this bill does not give cities and towns any new powers that they don’t already have today,” Gold said. “All it does is threaten to take away existing funding from towns that don’t comply.”
The council of governments under Gold drafted a Regional Housing Plan and advised 12 of its towns in creating their own local affordable housing plans. The local plans are required under state statute 8-30j to be updated every five years.
“We should have something similar around our major transit stations, and we should have potentially the requirement that those plans be implemented in zoning,” he said.
But Harrison said those same affordable housing plans are proof that many cities and towns are not interested in creating opportunities for more diverse, sustainable communities.
The state mandate for municipalities to create affordable housing plans resulted because cities and towns didn’t want the state to intervene in local zoning, according to Harrison.
“They said ‘we’re going to do these affordable housing plans and show we can do this,’” Harrison said. “And for the most part, these plans are terrible.”
Affordable housing advocates have been critical of plans such as the one in Stonington that went from 33 pages to five last spring after the local Planning and Zoning Commission was done editing down the draft from housing expert Don Poland of Gorman + York Property Advisors.
Instead of Poland’s original recommendation that would require developers to make 10% to 20% of residential units in projects affordable, the revised plan calls for considering a requirement that residential developments "of a certain size to provide a minimum percentage of units as affordable." The size of such developments and percentage of units were not specified.
Harrison said it’s time for the state to take the lead.
“There are so many people in this argument that do not give a crap about things being better, and do not care about the affordable housing crisis or the climate crisis or the long term fiscal health of Connecticut, and will just punt and punt and punt and say ‘study, study, study’ when we don’t need that. We need action,” he said.
He said DesegregateCT has been reaching out to local planning and zoning commissions, with presentations in Sprague and Ledyard coming up.
But Gold said the group hasn’t reached out to RiverCOG and other regional councils of government.
Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments Executive Director Amanda Kennedy this week said she hasn’t been part of any conversations about this specific proposal.
“Overall, I would have many questions to ask if/when this is formally submitted as a bill,” she said in an email.
Both Harrison and Gold acknowledged there’s opportunity as the process moves forward for conversation and compromise.
Gold said his regional planning organization believes in creating “vibrant, livable cities” with transit-oriented developments.
“We have a lot in common with groups like DesegregateCT, and we’re happy to work with them if they want to work with us,” Gold said.
Harrison emphasized the proposal is focused on communities that want to help bring affordable housing to their towns.
“There’s a line in the sand here: Do we want Connecticut to grow and prosper and be more inclusive, or not? And the way we’ve been doing this at the COG level, at the town and city level, has not done that. So this is a step forward, and a pretty modest one in many regards,” Harrison said.