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Norwalkers look to ADUs to provide affordable housing as City opts out of new State law

Principal Planner Bryan Baker speaks to the Norwalk Planning and Zoning Commission, June 15 on Zoom.

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk looks to be in a hurry to opt out of new state legislation regarding accessory apartments. While that might give the impression that the City is against increasing affordable housing by allowing homeowners to build detached living units in their yards, in reality, draft regulations are already in progress.

One sticking point: size and location. Planning and Zoning feels 700 square feet is adequate for a maximum size, but all three speakers at a recent public hearing disagreed.  P&Z thinks ADUs (accessory dwelling units) should be in backyards. Again, that’s drawing push back.

Opting out from the legislation passed last year by the State allows P&Z to tweak Norwalk’s existing accessory apartment regulations to make those, and other, changes, Principal Planner Bryan Baker said. If the City doesn’t opt out, then the State’s language would be locked in.

“We didn’t want it to sound like we’re opting out because we hate the legislation. I think, probably 99% of the legislation we agree with; we think detached accessory apartments are a good thing,” Baker said.

Connecticut municipalities have until Jan. 1 to opt out. The Common Council Economic & Community Development Committee is set to consider it Thursday, after the Planning and Zoning Commission voted June 15 to initiate the process.

A two-thirds majority is needed to opt out. The P&Z vote was unanimous.

“We are opting out to maintain flexibility, to make this a better process for the city, for stabilizing neighborhoods, for making sure that property owners are protected. At the same time encouraging more affordable housing to be built,” Commissioner Mike Mushak said.

Norwalk has had ADU regulations since 1984 and in the nearly four decades since, only 259 applications have come in.

“There’s a reason why there’s been only, I think, roughly 250 some odd ADUs in the city with the the current laws. It is because they were too restrictive,” activist Diane Lauricella said at the June 15 P&Z public hearing.

The State’s legislation requires municipalities to allow detached dwellings on properties with single family homes, Baker said. Norwalk’s current regulation allows only attached dwellings, but the draft aligns with the new State law.

That the Commission is open to detached dwellings is “the biggest needle mover,” Baker said. “I think that’s why Norwalk does not have many accessory apartments in the city. So I think that’s the biggest step forward.”

But the State allows 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 or, again, 30% of the house’s size.

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

Lauricella, the first speaker at the hearing, called that “a ridiculously small amount for adults that have accumulated antiques or things.” With that and other restrictions, “I don’t believe you’re going to have an onslaught of ADUs,” she said.

She asked that the City not opt out, because “There is a crisis in affordable housing… especially seniors.” In Cranbury, there are many empty nesters who “are viable, they’re not in their 90s,” who “would like to stay on their property, but they really don’t have a need for a large home.”

P&Z also seeks to make sure ADUs aren’t higher than the house they’re next to, and that they’re not closer to the front property line than the house.

The maximum height would be 15 feet if the ADU is within 20 feet of a side or rear property line or 20 feet if it’s more than that distance from neighboring properties, the draft regulation states.

“What’s the problem there?” Lauricella asked. She also attacked the front property line requirement, alleging that applications can be “site specific” and “in many of these cases, you would never be able to build a detached (ADU), or attached, if it wasn’t allowed in the front.”

The draft regulation requires that the property owner live on the premises and submit an affidavit every year certifying that fact.

That’s “another reason why you’re not going to get people to build these things,” Lauricella said. “Not to sound crass,” but the “hard-working staff” should crack down on zoning violations at single family homes “before we totally obliterate any chance” of increasing the number of ADUs in the city.

The draft regulation prohibits “mobile homes, recreational vehicles, travel trailers, shipping containers, storage containers and any other wheeled or transportable structures” as ADUs.

“I do believe many of you have done some homework on this. The emergence of tiny homes, many of those tiny homes are beautiful, and they are on wheels,” Lauricella said. And container homes “blend in a lot more than they did 10, even 10 years ago. In fact, we know there are 3D printer-based homes that are gorgeous…. I think this is old thinking being applied here.”

Diane Cece, the second speaker at the public hearing, said, “ditto to basically everything that Miss Lauricella just said.”

With a Jan. 1 deadline for opting out, “there’s not necessarily a time sensitive table right now, that’s forcing us to make the decision tonight,” Cece said.  She called voting now a “slippery slope” and warned, “We could end up in a position where we really still can’t take advantage of providing affordable housing, which is supposed to be a major goal in this state.”

Many tiny houses are tasteful and “I think it’s time that we take a look at some of those options as well for housing in the city,” Cece concluded.

Ben Hanpeter said he “echoed” Lauricella’s comments.

“We really do have an affordable housing crisis,” Hanpeter said. “…. I think we should really err on the side of giving homeowners flexibility to build it in a few different ways and be less restrictive rather than more restrictive to try to incentivize more of these being built.”

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

Baker replied, “Housing affordability, we completely agree…. We think accessory apartments, just like building more apartment buildings especially around our transit districts, is an important piece to increasing affordable housing.”

The draft regulations are preliminary and will be the topic of a public hearing, he said.

As for the ADU’s location on a property, “If you want to build a detached garage, it has to be in the rear half of your lot or 70 feet behind your front property line,” he said. “So we kind of went with that standard, and just applied it to accessory apartments, because if you’re building a detached one, you know, it’s very similar to if you have a garage.”

The comments about height are a “little ironic,” Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said. P&Z staff will get the phone calls from neighbors and “trust me, I’ve been in that scenario many, many times in 20-plus years. So that size building closer to the property line will raise a lot of eyebrows.”

Commissioner Tamsen Langalis called 700 square feet “actually very livable.” Tiny houses on wheels are “no more than 600 square feet” and “these are supposed to be accessory dwellings, they are not supposed to be two major size houses on one lot.”

“I have spent a considerable amount of, probably more time than I should, on the internet because it’s fascinating about the ADUs,” Commissioner Richard Roina said. “There’s a tremendous amount of information on ADUs online. The ones that you see the most of range in price from 200 to a million dollars, to add to your property…. You can buy a container completely ready to live in for $5,000. So I think that we should opt out and have some say in what is put up.”

Kleppin said, “I think city staff is generally in favor and supportive of the (State’s) public act language. I think what we’ve proposed is a little more realistic, real-world scenario of how to apply that.”

ADU memo 22-0622

14 comments

DryAsABone July 5, 2022 at 9:24 am

Regardless of what happens, Norwalk like Scamford, will be buried with illegal housing.
ADU’s and the process of permitting are just an excuse to tax. And landlords will avoid the process.
Yes ADU’s can be “cute” but do not count on the bulk of them being so. Converted garages and lean-to’s will be the norm.
In California ADU’s have onerous restrictions and mixed results. Corrupticut can’t handle it.
If Berkeley has issues with ADU’s it might be wise to question local “activists”.
Light reading:

https://www.hcd.ca.gov/policy-research/accessorydwellingunits.shtml

David Muccigrosso July 5, 2022 at 10:08 am

P&Z’s notion to restrict ADUs to backyards is myopic. Given Norwalk’s highly varied geography, it’s a silly and arbitrary rule.

And that’s an emblematic microcosm of the general problem here. Lauricella has it right. P&Z is coming up with dumb restrictions on what should be a free market. It’s the only way to get sustainable growth.

On the other hand… cue up all the knee-jerk homeowners who’ve Already Got Theirs and will happily tar Lauricella as somehow Trying To Destroy Norwalk or -gasp- Make Norwalk Like Stamford. I can already hear them furiously clacking away at their keyboards…

Steve Mann July 5, 2022 at 11:15 am

So, if the state allows for 1000 sf, why would Norwalk restrict size to below that? Maybe you should accept the advice of a commissioner who lives in what appears to be a 4000sf spread telling you that “actually 700sf is quite livable”.

Question: Say you own a two+ acre lot with a single-family home in AAA 1 acre zoning. Is the city now saying any subdivision would allow for only a 700-sf detached unit?

jm99 July 5, 2022 at 12:47 pm

Shouldn’t there also be a provision for the residents of the ADU to ensure that these are not going to all become AirBNBs that change hands every weekend? Zoning and planning should go beyond making sure the owner of the property is on site, but also that the residents of the ADU have a lease of some minimum duration.

David Muccigrosso July 5, 2022 at 2:32 pm

@jm99 – Unless you’ve got some evidence that we’re having a particularly bad problem with them, we shouldn’t assume that the market doesn’t “know” best.

Let people build what they want to build on their own property. It’s their right.

DryAsABone July 5, 2022 at 2:56 pm

Good point about the Air B&B, but…wait! That income is taxed so it is OK! No worries. As long as the state and local governments get their pound of flesh almost anything goes.
The housing issue is not going to be solved, at all, by ADU’s. But government will fatten up a bit on them with permitting and taxes.
Property values will decline and that is one of the goals, no? More redistribution of wealth through the back door. And if they do not decline, they will become less desirable. Who wants to live next door to a shanty?
ADU’s are a really, really bad idea. Check the problems they have caused in California.
Check The Cove area of Scamford will all the illegal apartments. THAT is Norwalk’s future with ADU’s, cute or not.

CT-Patriot July 5, 2022 at 5:35 pm

P&Z needs to concentrate on illegal apartments already overwhelming this city before they say they can administer this new “rule”.

Clean up the mess first and prove to the residents in our city P&Z and building department that all “illegal” apartments or build-outs have been addressed.

Once that’s accomplished, we can see if your all capable to manage this.

Nora King July 5, 2022 at 8:18 pm

I find this conversation laughable. 1.) Steve Kleppin in his team has made it impossible for current homeowners to do any work on their homes especially if they are in a flood zone. If you want to keep your small home and add a garage or a dormer they make it impossible and if it is near the water they want you to level the house and build a mansion. God forbid you to want to add a bathroom or roof. Steve’s department makes it impossible. They have the most restrictive and impossible laws. 2.) They refuse to enforce anything. Do you know how many houses that their department knows about that are being run as boarding houses and multiple people living in them…locked doors for every room… a lot. They do nothing. We should all be filled with terror if Norwalk adds ADUS. They will never manage them or enforce zoning and it will turn into a mess as it currently is with all the illegal violations that are taking place now. Steve Kleppin doesn’t think it is his job to enforce zoning for illegal apartments but they want you to know down any small house on the water because they won’t reset the work done to house to every five years like all the similar towns along the coastline do. Hence why are shoreline is becoming destroyed?

jm99 July 6, 2022 at 11:55 am

@David – The whole point of zoning is that no one is just allowed to do “whatever they like” on their property because unless you own a remote private island, what you do on your property affects others. Most people don’t buy a home in a residential neighborhood expecting (or wanting) to live next to a hotel. A forward-looking P&Z committee that has housing affordability in mind would want to get in front of potential problems and would also want to ensure these ADUs actually address housing needs.

DryAsABone July 6, 2022 at 1:50 pm

Check it out on social media…
“July Fourth gunman Robert Crimo videoed himself building his tiny home in the backyard of his parents’ house and painting armed soldier on their wall
In a series of videos posted online, Highland Park shooter Robert Crimo posted a video showing him building his home beside his parent’s home”

It is a cute little ADU. Just what every neighborhood needs.

David Muccigrosso July 7, 2022 at 8:29 am

@jm99 – But that has to be balanced against the neighborhood’s need to grow. Just like property rights are not absolute, neither is anyone’s “right” to a pristine existence. If you want a pristine neighborhood, go live in the boonies, but Norwalk’s not the boonies, is it?

Even within Norwalk, there is simply too much variation between different types of “neighborhood character” that having a single set of ADU guidelines makes absolutely no sense. What works for East and North Norwalk is stopping South Norwalk and Wall St. from growing naturally; and the pent-up demand is ultimately what’s driving those ugly high-rises – if it weren’t the CURRENT merry band of corrupt thugs putting them up, it’d be ANOTHER, because *people want to live here*.

CT-Patriot July 7, 2022 at 6:27 pm

Just another way to get more government money by applying AFFH when it comes to this city.

ADU’s are bad enough, it’s just a ploy.

Get used to it and push the AFFH so Norwalk gets more high-rise apartments if we take any government money for housing, road paving, sewer improvement etc.

Christ, they can’t manage what’s already built out and all the dangerous apartments that continue through the city.

Enforce the codes now, get permits straighten out, condemn any apartments or buildings converted to illegally.

One thing at a time fellas…

David Muccigrosso July 8, 2022 at 7:58 am

CT-Patriot’s vision is unworkable and unrealistic. You can’t insist on perfect enforcement of ANYTHING as the sole bar for making progress on EVERYTHING ELSE.

However, it’s a great way of making the lack of progress seem like everyone else’s fault BUT obstructionists like CT-Patriot. Take one look at his various ramblings in these comments sections. Does this sound like a person who will EVER be happy with the state of affairs? He has an entire roster of people and groups to blame for various problems, and not one solution that wouldn’t require a draconian police state to enforce to the level he insists on.

For all his rhetoric about “freedom”, his vision is not what a free society looks like.

But you know what a free society WOULD do? It’d avoid imposing one-size-fits-all regulations on the FREE MARKET like P&Z wants to.

Harking back to the discussion about property rights… not everything in a free society has to be addressed with a law or regulation. Whatever happened to neighbors just TALKING to each other about that annoying tree, or their concerns about ADU construction? Maybe if everyone weren’t armed to the teeth like CT-Patriot wishes, these conversations would turn less deadly than they did for Ellen Wink.

*mic drop*

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