Wilton leaders speak out against state-mandated zoning laws

WILTON — When it comes to new zoning laws proposed by the state, Wilton First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice is not a fan of its “one-size-fits-all” approach.

“The approach reflects a lack of understanding and recognition of how many of these same communities, including the town of Wilton, have proactively and successfully increased the housing and ethnic diversity of our communities,” Vanderslice wrote in her testimony to the state on March 14.

Earlier this month, the state’s Planning and Development Committee introduced S.B. 1024, a bill that includes numerous changes, one of the most contentious parts being the need to “establish requirements for zoning regulations concerning accessory apartments, mixed-use developments and multifamily housing.”

The public hearing stage on the proposal began on March 11.

Vanderslice said this week she has followed Desegregate Connecticut’s initiatives “from the beginning.” Desegregate Connecticut, a nonprofit founded by Sarah Bronin of Hartford, is set in its support for the proposed bill.

Vanderslice said she understands the premise of more affordable housing and increased diversity in town populations is a positive, but believes the state cannot be sure of what is best for the inner workings of each individual town.

“Local residents working with their local government know best how to achieve the goals of diversity and affordability within their community,” she said.

New Haven Mayor and New Canaan native Justin Elicker, a Democrat who is a proponent of the bill, said last week that the “result of current zoning practices is perpetuating segregation.” He also offered his observation that Connecticut remains one of the most segregated states in the country.

“Most towns in the state of Connecticut are putting in some sort of effort to fight the zoning regulations that exist now,” Elicker said. “I’ve been surprised by the level of pushback. I feel the proposal is quite moderate.”

State Sen. Will Haskell, a Democrat who represents Wilton, does not support S.B. 2014 in its current iteration.

“I think S.B. 1024 needs to be amended to reflect some of the feedback that was received during the Planning and Development Meeting,” Haskell said. “In general, I believe our community should promote housing diversity. We need housing that is affordable so that recent graduates, seniors and working families have an opportunity to live here.”

While he doesn’t serve on the Planning and Development Committee, Haskell said he will be carefully reviewing any legislation that is to be passed out of it.

Vanderslice’s testimony also focused on percentage increases in both diversity in the town’s population and through its housing inventory.

She pointed to U.S Census statistics, citing that in 2000, Wilton’s non-white population sat at 5 percent and during the most recent 2019 U.S. Census data, Wilton’s non-white population was at 15 percent. During that period, while Wilton’s non-white population tripled, Vanderslice said, the town’s total population “grew by only 4 percent.”

She agreed with Elicker’s sentiment that towns should invest in creating more diverse housing, not just affordable housing. She said that is a big focus for Wilton right now. The first selectwoman said that is a big focus for Wilton right now, and also thinks the town has been doing well without state-mandated intervention.

“During that same 19-year period, Wilton’s housing diversity grew through multi-family developments, including apartments buildings and owner-occupied town homes,” Vanderlsice wrote in her testimony. “Most of this development had an affordable component as contained in Wilton’s zoning regulations.”

She explained to the purpose of needing diversified housing options.

“When their kids are gone and residents want to downsize, if you want to come in to (Wilton) and have a starter home, if you don’t really want to live in a one or two-acre single family home, but rather a townhouse or condo, we don’t really have those options right now,” Vanderslice said, but cited there are numerous projects that have been approved by the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission to address these needs.

She also mentioned transit-oriented development and the mandates that S.B. 1024 would put surrounding the town’s transit stops, which she pointed out would be extremely difficult to fulfill in Wilton.

As for the bill itself, Vanderslice was candid.

“You might find a small percentage of residents who support this, but I think the majority agree,” she said. “There is so much bipartisan opposition to these bills, it seems like they would be difficult to pass.”