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.
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.”
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.”