Friday, April 16, 2021

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Zoning and Race in Guilford: Zoning Reform, Past, Present, and Proposed

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles on the effect of zoning on race in Guilford.

Guilford’s population is about 90 percent White, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For at least the last 20 years, as Connecticut has become more racially diverse, Guilford’s population has remained the same.

One of the most discussed—and more misunderstood—prospects of zoning reform in Connecticut is the possibility of mandates, that the state might dictate to municipalities how to zone their communities. Some worry this will irreparably harm the character of their towns as unresponsive policymakers in Hartford set the rules, others argue it is the only way to effectively desegregate affluent White communities entrenched in zoning practices that reinforce the status quo.

While methods or means of state-mandated zoning reform have been proposed with more momentum in the last eight months or so as conversations around racial justice exploded over the summer, one regulation passed more than 30 years ago has been the subject of heated criticism from both sides of the debate. Connecticut General Statute 8-30g, which on the surface allows a developer to bypass most local zoning standards in specific circumstances, has never quite lived up to the hopes of some of its advocates nor the fears of its opponents.

Effectively, what 8-30g does is allows developers to appeal to a court if their application is denied by a local planning and zoning commission, and it potentially gives the court the power to “wholly or partly revise, modify, remand or reverse” a denied application, despite any local zoning that would disallow it.

But what the regulation has not been able to do is force segregated, wealthy towns to be more open to developers, according to Sean Ghio, policy director at the Partnership for Strong Communities, a Hartford-based advocacy and research nonprofit that focuses on housing and homelessness.

Ghio said that while 8-30g has had many other broad-reaching effects at a policy level, the regulation has not been able to effectively assure developers that their projects will reach fruition in towns like Guilford, giving them the confidence to invest there.

“It’s effective, I think, in what it was intended to do, which is to [communicate that]...affordable housing is an important enough state policy goal that there are circumstances under which a builder should be able to appeal local decisions,” he said.

The tendency of local voters, boards, and politicians to oppose affordable housing at every step effectively ensures that a vast majority of developers will never even attempt to build there, according to Ghio, and many projects don’t get past initial consideration before resources are moved to friendlier areas.

“It’s not just time, it’s certainty,” Ghio said. “Developers, in general, that are willing to go the route of potentially having to appeal a local zoning authority’s decision through 8-30g, they have to have a certain level of resources to do that...resource in experts, resources in terms of analyzing all the things a local authority is going to question, from drainage...transportation, traffic safety, sewer—it goes on an on and on.”

Only about 25 percent of 8-30g court cases are ruled in favor of the developer, according to Ghio.

On the other hand, having friendly faces locally does wonders for these projects, Ghio said. Guilford has seen a couple smaller projects, including the Woodruff Property development and a handful of energy efficient affordable houses led by a local developer breeze through the approval process due to support from the community and the town government.

But if a developer gets the impression there will be opposition and foot-dragging, many simply find an easier path rather than trying to lobby or educate residents, Ghio believes. Non-profit developers don’t have the resources in the first place, he said, and for-profit developers steer toward communities where the risk is lower and they are more likely to make money.

One sign of progress, according to Ghio, is the practice of a “friendly” 8-30g applications, which has facilitated some projects along the shoreline. Developers bring applications to a town designed to fit the state regulation, and the two parties negotiate a compromise that allows a project to be considered, sometimes still outside of local zoning requirements, without going through the court process.

Ghio said that these sorts of collaborative applications, which end up creating developments that work better both for the town and the developer, are often facilitated by local advocacy groups or through connections between local leaders and non-profits.

For-profit developers are more likely to go the contentious appeals route, which gives towns even less input if the court rules in favor of the developer, Ghio said.

According to Guilford Town Planner George Kral, Guilford has never had an application for affordable housing utilize 8-30g, though at the town meeting to approve the Woodruff development, a handful of residents expressed fear that the developer might somehow use it to modify or expand the project.

Looking After Their Own

One common thread that often comes up when discussing affordable housing is the idea of prioritizing housing for those who are already residents of the town.

Many have argued that prioritizing current residents for affordable housing—people who have paid local taxes for many years and may have extensive family, social, and economic networks in the town—is not inherently racist or discriminatory, and is simply another way that municipal governments should be allowed to look after their residents.

The Guilford Housing Authority and the Women & Family Life Center have both spoken publicly about how the dearth of affordable housing is forcing some residents to leave town after events like divorce or loss of income because there simply is no place to live at a certain income level in town.

But broad rules prioritizing town residents for affordable housing have often been found in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act, particularly when used by predominantly White suburban towns, according to a 2018 study, as in practice they perpetuate racial segregation. Additionally, it is illegal to prioritize current residents in housing that is funded by public monies.

State Representative Sean Scanlon (D-98) said he had faith that Guilford residents were capable of having conversations about what is and isn’t working in town, and making those changes themselves.

“Real change starts with communities and with people,” he said. “And we have to, as a town, have a reckoning. I always find it better to have communities come up with solutions rather than the state come up with one top-down solution...I think that Guilford is capable as a community of having a conversation about this and pro-actively changing some of the things that we have the power to do currently.”

Proposals

In June 2020, in the wake of several police killings of Black Americans across the country and renewed focus on racial equity issues, a group calling itself Desegregate CT formed, made up of advocates and land-use experts. Its stated goal is to “ensure our land use laws are more inclusive by design,” focusing on zoning reform and diverse housing.

Kral said he was aware of the significant lobbying in which Desegregate CT had been involved. How those ideas would affect Guilford—whether the town chooses to adopt them, or whether the state moves toward mandates—is a complex topic.

“There is a lot of discussion at the legislature about new state laws that would make it more mandatory that local government, especially suburban governments be more liberal with regard to higher density housing, at least,” Kral said. “There is some indication that we should be doing more.”

The vast majority of Guilford’s residentially zoned land, mostly north of I-95, is not ideal for denser housing for various reasons, according to Kral. But there are two changes for which advocates have pushed that Kral said are applicable to Guilford and its zoning.

The first is accessory apartments: structures built alongside or into another house. Guilford’s zoning codes are relatively stringent on their requirements for these dwellings, requiring, among other things, a minimum 40,000 square-foot lot and off-street parking for one car per bedroom of the accessory.

Those dwellings also cannot be smaller than 400 square feet or larger than 1,200 square feet, and require approval by a special permit process.

Desegregate CT has argued that these structures are simple and flexible in creating housing diversity, allowing family members to live near each other or offering cheap rentals that don’t require large investments in construction.

Kral said it would be a “fairly minor adjustment” to make the accessory apartments “by right,” no longer requiring a lengthy and sometimes onerous application process through the Planning & Zoning Commission. People would still need to have a building permit and be up to code, he said.

While these apartments have been relatively uncontroversial for the most part, they also do not count as affordable by the state’s metrics, and even with more inclusive zoning their impact can be limited, affordable housing advocates said.

The other thing Desegregate CT has spotlighted is multi-family housing, which is readily available in many towns, but heavily restricted in many majority White, suburban areas. The vast majority of Guilford does not allow multi-family housing by right, requiring special processes or limited to non-profit developers.

Allowing multi-family housing in many parts of the town would likely have little effect, at least in the short term, on increasing housing diversity in Guilford.

Kral said a “targeted” look at the town’s zoning codes, probably focused on areas that have public water and centering on land west of downtown and near Boston Post Road, would likely be able to identify areas where it would be reasonable to increase density, if the town needed to do that.

“It makes sense to encourage multi-family housing” in that area, he said.

If the town wanted these areas to include more affordable units, it would likely require the town to offer incentives; Guilford is already working on such incentives, according to Kral. Usually, developers are offered an increased density allowance if they subsidize some percentage of units.

Another option is to look at purchasing some of that land or gifting it to a developer, which the town did with the Woodruff property last year. This comes at a potentially significant cost to taxpayers, Kral said, though he added there were other properties that were identified around the same time as Woodruff that might still be suitable.

One of the issues residents most worry about when zoning changes are discussed, or when higher-density or affordable constructions are proposed is the somewhat nebulous concept of “character.” The idea of what makes a town appealing, attractive, and special—whether it is a certain type of architecture, open space, historical markers, or even types of signage—all can exist in this word, which elicits strong emotional responses when people feel it is threatened.

But both in Guilford and many other suburban towns, proposals found to not fit community or neighborhood character can result in the denial of projects without the zoning authority having to state concrete or quantifiable reasons.

According to Matt Straub, who works with a national non-profit called LISC that helps affordable housing developers fund projects, as well as advocating and lobbying for more inclusive housing, said the word “character” comes up a lot when rich, majority White towns want to deny the creation of affordable housing.

Character as a descriptor of aesthetic or cultural value appears more than 30 times in Guilford’s zoning regulations.

Straub said character is not used exclusively against affordable housing projects, and developers of all kinds often meet these objections as communities seek to preserve what they see as important in their towns, but the scrutiny is especially focused and severe when trained on the kind of housing that rich, majority White towns lack that could help integrate them, according to advocates.

Fionnuala Darby-Hudgens, director of operations at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, believes that zoning codes centered on character are absolutely designed to enforce and uphold the predominantly White racial makeup of a town.

“Language like, ‘Doesn’t fit the character of the town’—that is absolutely racially coded language,” she said. “If the character of the town is to be an all-White community and then you deny access to the easiest way to integrate communities...through barriers to zoning, and you say it is preservation of your character, then you are preserving your White community.”

A bill that died the state legislature last year would have fully disallowed this kind of language, though it would not necessarily prevent towns from simply creating other barriers to affordable housing or disallowing it unilaterally, Darby-Hudgens said.

A bill that was introduced just this month in the state senate would simply define “character” as “physical site characteristics and architectural context” and force local zoning boards or commissions to cite “clear and explicit physical standards” in denying applications.

Kral said it was “clearly the case” that towns like Guilford have used character to deny the kind of housing that would diversify their communities, though he was also explicit that not everything about the term “character” is devious or intended to be racist, though it can still have racist effects without intent.

But character should also be understood as a much more complicated concept, Kral said, and its use in zoning regulations is certainly also an attempt to codify something that is both universally understood and nearly impossible to define.

Kral described Guilford’s aesthetic, with sweeping stretches of tidal marsh, glittering coastlines, and sunny beach lanes melding into the historically rich stone architecture of downtown before further diving into the winding, forested New England backroads of North Guilford as a concept understood by residents, even as many would have their own specific ideas of how or why it exists.

But these things, while valuable, should not, according to affordable housing advocates, end up as a justification for practices that create inequities, which has happened historically, and continues to happen.

Scanlon said he saw some of that type of exclusive, selfish attitude at the Woodruff property hearing, and said he hoped that Guilford residents could find a way past those biases.

“This fear of ‘the other’—this is not something that is grounded in reality. We’re not talking about building a...300-unit project building that are havens for some of the problems you might think of. We’re talking about building starter apartments,” he said.

Outside of those fears, Scanlon said Guilford officials still have to listen to residents and seek to understand real problems that come with building a town: traffic, safety, crowding, and even aesthetics. But he acknowledged that people often hide their prejudice behind these things.

“There are always going to be valid concerns that we have to address about any project in Guilford when it comes to zoning. But if the statements are, ‘I’m worried about the driveway, I’m worried about the fencing, and I’m worried about the kind of people that were attracted to this,’ that is the tell that shows you that that is really what this is all about,” Scanlon added.

Look forward to the final article in the Guilford Courier’s series on zoning in the coming weeks.


Jesse Williams covers Guilford and Madison for Zip06. Email Jesse at j.williams@shorepublishing.com.

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