Southington planners opt out of state housing effort over density concerns

SOUTHINGTON — Town planners recommend opting out of a state law that eases requirements for accessory dwelling units, a move many local officials say could greatly increase housing density.

A state law addressing a host of zoning issues allows towns to opt out and remain with their current zoning regulations regarding in-law apartments and additional buildings on a property. The law was passed earlier this year.

All but one of the towns’ Planning and Zoning Commission members voted this week to opt out of the new state law.

“I don’t think there’s any portion of this [state law] on accessory dwelling units that benefits this town,” said Bob Hammersley, a Republican and commission chairman. He’s running for re-election next month.

Christina Volpe, a Democratic commission member running for Town Council, was the lone vote in favor of the state law.

“In the dense areas of our town where it’s not just single family homes, this may be something beneficial,” she said.

Town regulations require homeowners to get a special permit from the commission in order to add onto their homes. The addition has to be attached to the house and can only be used by family members.

In explaining the differences between Southington’s regulations and the new state law, planners said all those requirements would be eliminated. Accessory dwellings would only require administrative approval from the town planning department and wouldn’t require a public hearing as is needed for a special permit application. The additional dwelling also wouldn’t need to be attached to the house and could be rented out to non-relatives.

The state law was developed with research from Desegregate CT, a nonprofit focused on equitable and affordable land use policies. Allowing more multi-family living would help make suburban properties more affordable, according to proponents of the change.

The prospect of greater density in the town’s residential zones worried planners who have struggled with ways to curb development.

“Think of the ramifications of a detached unit,” said Peter Santago, a Republican running for re-election. “If I have enough space, I can put up another 1,000- to 1,200-square-foot unit (on my property) and rent it out.”

Caleb Cowles, a Democrat on the commission running in November’s election, said he did see some benefits to the new law but had enough reservations about it that he voted with Republicans to opt out.

“I’m anxious about the potential to double the single family occupancy throughout the entire jurisdiction,” Cowles said.

Hammersley said the removal of the special permit process also removes the public hearing requirement, which gives neighbors and others the chance to voice their opinions on a proposed property change.

“I think we all benefit from having the public input,” he said. “[This change] is a slap in the face to democracy.”

Volpe said the goal of the legislation was good even if she disagreed with some aspects. She suggested incorporating parts of the new law into the town’s zoning regulations.

“Southington is predominantly white with a socioeconomic class that can afford to live in the units that are available. I think what this [state law] says to us is that there is an ability to give another generation a space to afford something here. Maybe it doesn’t have to look like it does right now,” she said. “Our community needs more diverse housing.”

Following the commission’s vote, the question of opting out of the state’s accessory dwelling law will go to the Town Council for a decision.

For Town Council chairwoman Victoria Triano, a Republican running for re-election, it’s an easy decision.

“It not only affects our planning and zoning department now, it hits our whole community in the future. It’s an incredibly inappropriate overstep of the state government,” she said. “It’ll absolutely multiply our density by a great deal.”

Val DePaolo, a Democratic councilor running for re-election, said she’s planning to learn more about the issue before Monday’s meeting and wants to talk with Volpe about it. The issue of affordable housing has increasingly been discussed and she expects it to be an issue for the next council as the town conducts a state-mandated affordable housing study.

She and other councilors received a report from the Open Communities Alliance on affordable housing and said it looked at the issue through “the lens of equity.” Open Communities Alliance is a civil rights organization.

“I think it’s something obviously for the next term that we really need to take a close look at,” DePaolo said.

Triano said such laws weaken local control.

“I can’t imagine anyone being interested in it,” she said. “It’s not even a political issue for me. It’s just common sense.”

jbuchanan@record-journal.com203-317-2230Twitter: @JBuchananRJ

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