Commission to determine fate of ‘granny pods’
The Planning and Zoning Commission opened a public hearing on Nov. 13 to discuss whether Wilton should opt out of a new state law that allows homeowners to place temporary health care structures on their properties in order to care for an elderly relative with mental or physical impairments.
The law was established by way of Public Act 17-155 and codified in Section 8-2(a) of the Connecticut General Statutes.
The act, which was signed into law in July and went into effect Oct. 1, “established provisions for operating or operating procedures for what are called ‘temporary health care structures,’” explained Planning and Land Use Management Director Bob Nerney.
The structures — also known as “granny pods” — are “small, freestanding accessory buildings designed to provide living arrangements for mentally or physically impaired individuals,” said Nerney. “The buildings are oftentimes prefabricated and assembled on location.”
Opting out would require a two-step process involving both the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Board of Selectmen, said Nerney.
“The Planning and Zoning Commission must hold a public hearing — which is what you’re doing right now — and then vote to opt out. The commission must state its reasons for opting out and the commission’s notice of decision must be published in the local newspaper,” he said.
“The Board of Selectmen must then vote to opt out. No public hearing is required from the Board of Selectmen — that process would have already taken place through the Planning and Zoning Commission.”
If Wilton chooses to not opt out of the new law, the town would be required to permit granny pods as “an allowable accessory use for any property located within a single-family zoning district.”
The law requires a caretaker — often the child of an elderly individual, said Nerney — to live on-premise, and he or she must be unpaid.
Units may be occupied only by impaired individuals, and a statement from a Connecticut-licensed physician is required. Nerney said the act is “unclear” as to how many people may occupy a single unit.
The structures must comply with building and health code standards, and “a proposal must comply with all specified setback coverage and floor area ratios requirements,” said Nerney.
The law requires that the structure be “removed within 100 days of the impaired person vacating the unit,” said Nerney, and “provides for one structure per lot, [which] cannot exceed 500 square feet in gross floor area.”
Nerney said the law also requires “no commission hearing or meeting.”
“The process is limited to an administrative review for, for example, a zoning permit — yet the act requires noticing,” he said.
“I’m not quite sure what the purpose is because normally notices give individuals the right to partake in a hearing of some sort.”
Nerney outlined “some issues” for the commission to discuss and consider.
“Contrary to many communities throughout Connecticut, Wilton has a long-established policy governing accessory residential units [that] in certain aspects … are more stringent in some regards and permissive in other areas,” said Nerney.
“For instance, accessory dwelling units can be located either within the principal residence by right, or permitted in a detached structure by special permit — and the arrangements are not limited to medical- or physical-related circumstances.”
The key word, Nerney said, is “special permit.”
“Unlike the state law, Wilton’s zoning regulations trigger a special permit with notice to [owners of] adjoining properties [who can] participate in a hearing process expressing support or raising concerns,” he said.
Wilton’s current regulations do not allow “any relief from the Zoning Board of Appeals,” Nerney noted, “so I think generally, our current accessory regulations — whether it’s used for a person with medical disabilities or not — seems to be working out well.”
Unlike the state’s 500-square-foot limitation when it comes to granny pods, Nerney said, Wilton allows up to 750 square feet or one-quarter of the primary residence — “whichever is greater” — when it comes to accessory dwelling units.
“Moreover, the state regulations require that certain rights run with the individual occupant and actually require removal of the dwelling unit when care is no longer required,” he added, whereas Wilton’s zoning regulations “run with the land and not with the individual.”
The new law states the granny pods have to be removed when care is no longer needed — something Nerney said he could envision being “a struggle or battle to get someone to remove something that they have built.”
“I would say that given the existing policy, it doesn’t really seem necessary for Wilton to be subjected to this law,” said Nerney.
“I think the process provides little flexibility; it’s onerous and it doesn’t provide any voice to people who may want to speak for or against an application. I think, also, the ability to monitor and enforce the requirements could be problematic with this requirement.”
Commissioner Andrea Preston said she thinks the new law “runs a bit redundant” to Wilton’s current regulations and that some of the standards outlined in the state law are “a bit loosey-goosey.”
“It says that the structure must be removed within 121 days of the impaired person vacating the unit — who’s going to police that? — and the caregiver must live in property and must be unpaid,” she said.
“It’s these things that I think are a bit untenable for the town to police, so personally, I’m not in support of it.”
Commissioner Peter Shiue said the state law seems “more restrictive and pretty much redundant.”
“Pretty much the only advantage I’m seeing is that it might allow somebody to go ahead and get something installed on their property quicker than it would if they had to go through our hearing process,” he said.
Another commissioner expressed his concern about “the lack of any sort of public or commission input” regarding the granny pods under the state law, and another said he thinks there are “some well-meaning things” in the law, but believes the commission could cover them “if we look at our regulations.”
Commissioner Doris Knapp asked Nerney what would happen to the water supply connection if one of the temporary structures were to be removed.
“Someone’s water supply would have to be disconnected and the investment someone made in the water septic system would be gone?” she asked.
Nerney said that is correct. “They would have to eliminate it entirely.”
Ridgefield Road resident Christopher Law said he thinks temporary health care structures could be advantageous for the town to have.
“Considering the cost of health care for elderly people,” he said, “I think to keep people in town, it might be a nice idea to have something less costly for building a structure.”
Law said he believes people would rather “have the ability to put in something temporary” instead of putting their family members in nursing homes.
“To me, it’s a cost thing,” he said. “If it makes sense for the homeowner to have a cheaper dwelling where they can house their parent, that really makes sense to me.”
The public hearing was continued to the commission’s Dec. 11 meeting.