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Norwalk ADU regulation draft develops even as some Council members object

Example of an ADU (accessory dwelling unit), in a memo written by Principal Planner Bryan Baker.

NORWALK, Conn. — A Norwalk Planning and Zoning Commission public hearing tonight focuses on regulations for accessory dwelling units, even as Commissioners know the points might be moot.

The Common Council has yet to opt out of the State legislation passed last year requiring municipalities to allow detached dwellings on properties with single family homes. If the Council doesn’t opt out by Jan. 1, the State’s rules would apply and the P&Z draft would be discarded.

A two-thirds majority on the 15-member Council is needed and while discussions began in July, some Council members are balking, voicing objections to P&Z drafted regulation.

“My initial inclination is to say we want to be able to opt out and have control on our own process. The problem is we don’t know what the end result is,” said Josh Goldstein (D-At Large), a former Zoning Commissioner.

David Heuvelman (D-District A), the Committee member who voted no, said he thinks the drafted regulations are more restrictive than the State’s law and, “we don’t have the final on what our zoning code rewrite is going to be.”

The State allows accessory dwelling units (ADUs) up to 1,000 square feet or 30% the size of the net size of the house, whichever is larger. P&Z’s draft calls for a maximum 700 square feet if it’s a detached structure or 1,000 square feet if it’s attached.

Location is an issue, as P&Z’s draft forbids ADUs in front yards.

“I particularly object to the limitation on size to the reduction to 700 feet, and the prohibition on front yards,” Nora Niedzielski-Eichner (D-At Large) said. “The reality is if you drive around West Norwalk, you drive around lots of parts of our city, people have yards that are substantial, and could easily accommodate a detached unit without being in any way imposing on their neighbors.”

Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin disagreed.

“You do not want accessory structures in the front yard of the house. You don’t want to have pool sheds. It’s just not a good look,” Kleppin said. “Aesthetically, it’s completely, I would say, contrary to everything that we’ve been working on with the new zoning regulations, which I know you haven’t seen yet.”

Setbacks would vary according to Norwalk’s zones, mirroring “what other accessory structures are already required to do within the various zones,” Kleppin said.

A detached ADU in the AAA zone would have to be 30 feet from the side property line and in the AA zone the minimum distance would be 20 feet, Principal Planner Bryan Baker explained at the Nov. 3 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting. In other zones, it would be 10 feet and the rear setback everywhere is planned for 10 feet.

More controversial is the possibility of site plan review and notifying neighbors. The fee for a site plan review would drop from the standard $710 to $160 and a public hearing would be discretionary, Baker said.

The review would give the Commission power to consider screening and other issues, like driveway access, Kleppin said. But Commissioner Galen Wells felt it would be contrary to the State legislation’s goal of making it easier for people to add ADUs to their property and therefore increase housing stock.

“There is a desperate need for affordable housing and Norwalk housing is really a crisis,” Wells said. “So for us to make it more difficult to do these detached ADUs, I think would be a real disservice to the city.”

Commission Chairman Lou Schulman said he thought ADUs would be market rate housing.

“Well, $3,000 a month to live in my backyard? I don’t think so,” Wells replied.

Commissioner Steve Ferguson said there are people who don’t want to live in the high density areas and giving people that choice shows “the diversity of Norwalk.”

Commission member Richard Roina said he has as much faith in P&Z staff as Wells but, “I find it abhorrent that this could happen,” especially if a homeowner erects a modular ADU overnight with no notice to neighbors. He supported site plan review although he’s “vehemently against detached ADUs,” as a “safeguard that’s needed.”

It failed on a 3-4-1 vote.

“I’m very displeased and disappointed in the Planning and Zoning Commission,” John Kydes (D-District C), Economic & Community Development Committee Chairman, said Dec. 1. “I think this came down from the State as a way to add housing stock to rural communities” that don’t have large apartment buildings “and it was under the cover of affordable units and homes for grandma and grandpa. But I think without these restrictions in place and not requiring blood relatives or any sort of income designation, I think you’re opening this thing up to people just looking to make additional income by having a rental unit on their property.”

A site plan review would “at least notify neighbors, so I don’t understand,” Kydes said, adding that unhappy neighbors will bring their complaints to Common Council members “not really knowing the structure of the process that how this all goes.”

He supports opting out, however, because “this is far better than what came down from the state.”

Five Committee members voted to opt out, moving it to the full Council for a vote. One voted against it and two Council members who weren’t on the Committee and couldn’t vote said they were against it.

Tom Livingston (D-District E), Lisa Shanahan (D-District E), Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) and Darlene Young (D-District B) joined Kydes in voting to send opting out to the full Council, without commenting.

Those who indicate opposition to opting out stress the need for affordable housing.

“I feel strongly that increasing our available housing stock, particularly for our young people and our young families, and our seniors, is really crucial,” Niedzielski-Eichner said. “… I personally think that the state’s regulations at this point being less restrictive is better for us.”

“If we are planning on being more restrictive then we do need to be very clear with people on what they can and can’t do because the overall goal of building and diversifying our housing stock, I think is an essential goal for this city and a city that desperately needs more housing,” Goldstein said.

“My fear is that if we continue down a path of restricting these, we’re never going to see them happen,” Heuvelman said.  “I think that this is a tool in our housing arsenal that we’re not utilizing. … I said before, and I’ll say again, I’m a no vote on this, on the opt out.”

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Updated, 7:30 p.m.: Videos added.

 

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