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A long-simmering, state-wide debate around zoning reform that has recently sparked broad pushback from mostly suburban municipalities across the state is rearing its head in Madison, as the Board of Selectmen (BOS) argued to a stalemate over taking a public stance on proposals currently ruminating in Hartford.
A series of bills focusing on a broad range of reforms—everything from tweaking language around the definitions of terms to requiring local zoning boards to allow denser housing constructions in state-defined areas—have been drawn up and discussed by state legislators.
Many residents have viewed these changes as having the potential to wrest local control from municipalities as it relates to land use. Advocates have presented the bills as urgently necessary to address demonstrable issues of housing diversity and segregation in the state’s affluent suburbs.
State Representative John-Michael Parker (D-101) spoke to the BOS this past week, and made it clear that he does not support any effort to remove local control as far as zoning, which the state legislation is, arguably, not doing anyway.
“I believe in protecting autonomy for folks here in town,” Parker said. “And putting trust in our town leaders...It’s a balance between what authority is given to municipalities by the state government. The state is involved in all aspects of our town, and we have to find on specific issues how that best interplay works.”
But Selectman Bruce Wilson (R) pushed for the BOS to discuss a specific local resolution—something that would not be binding, but would take an official position on state mandates and affirm Madison’s commitment to enacting reforms at the local level.
“I think this is a moment for us to represent the citizens of the town in what is not a political issue for us at all,” Wilson said. “It is simply a statement that we’re working hard and actually making progress.”
That effort stalled despite a robust discussion among Parker, State Senator Christine Cohen (D-12), and the BOS, with Democrats First Selectman Peggy Lyons and selectmen Scott Murphy and Al Goldberg making it clear they didn’t support approving a resolution of any kind on the issue.
A single bill in the State Senate, S.B 1024, has recently emerged from committee and includes a wide swath of the many initiatives and changes that were initially proposed. Cohen said she has been speaking with Town Planner Dave Anderson about some of these specifics.
Some of the “misinformation” that has propagated around these proposals stem from previous versions of the bill or other bills, or even from previous efforts by the state to reform zoning in year’s past, according to Cohen.
“I think a lot of what folks have been concerned about, those concerns have been heard, and many things have been modified as a result of that,” Cohen said.
Among provisions removed from the current bill are the ability of parties to sue municipalities for libel in certain cases, according to Cohen, as well as “as of right” language allowing certain developments or constructions without special reviews or public hearings.
But plenty of other provisions, including strictly defining what zoning boards can call “character,” allowing property owners a court appeal process when their applications are denied, and limiting the number of parking spaces and floor areas that can be required in local zoning codes would all still have a marked effect on Madison.
Wilson argued there was a strong motivation for the BOS to discuss a resolution that would put Madison on the record as far as these relevant issues, arguing that this could give Parker and Cohen a clear mandate to advocate specifically for or against certain pieces of legislation Hartford.
He added that Madison should not be punished or suffer due to the “transgressions” of other towns when it came to zoning.
“I don’t necessarily need a signed resolution...to ensure the voices of Madison are heard,” Cohen said. “As long as you folks are communicating with me, telling me what you want to see, what is particularly troublesome, then I can relay that information and be just as effective.”
Lyons and the other Democrats argued that passing a resolution on this specific issue would set “a dangerous precedent” with residents later expecting the BOS to officially speak on every controversial piece of state legislation.
“If we use our board meetings to debate and deliberate on matters that are going on in Hartford, I think [that] is doing a disservice to the community,” she said. “There are other channels.”
She cited other recent state-wide issues, including the police accountability bill and school mandates for vaccines as things that affected Madison citizens but on which the BOS did not take an official position.
Wilson, though, continued to contend that the zoning issue was both important enough and a resolution was not without precedent, citing a fracking materials ban passed by the BOS in 2018; that ban took the form of an ordinance, and was essentially analogous to proposed state legislation.
“This is a uniquely profound change to the way Madison is governed, potentially,” Wilson said. “To take our foot off the gas as individuals or as any local government I think is a mistake.”
In the end, after significant discussion (and toward the latter part of a three hour meeting), Lyons promised to bring Parker and Cohen back to answer questions and speak before the BOS on the zoning issue as it evolves, and the discussion of a local resolution was tabled.
Zoning Reform in Madison
The Planning & Zoning Commission (PZC) is working on its own to address zoning reform includes at least some recent efforts to allow cluster housing in certain areas, expand accessory apartments, and allow multi-family constructions near downtown, according to Anderson.
He told The Source that while there have not been conversations regarding significant revamps of Madison’s sometimes very restrictive zoning codes, these efforts are demonstrable, good-faith attempts to address the issues identified by reform advocates.
“The [PZC] is making efforts to try to move things in this direction,” Anderson said. “I think when we had a conversation the other night [with the BOS], everybody seemed to be in agreement that we need to continue to do better and we need to make more progress faster than we’ve made.
“But it seems like we’re moving in the right direction,” he added.
Because much of the state legislation is still in flux, Anderson said he didn’t want to delve into specifics about language in the bill. He added that a committee currently working on a comprehensive affordable housing plan is also likely to produce positive steps for Madison to expand accessibility, diversity, and affordability in housing.
The current language in S.B. 1024 requires local zoning regulations to broadly “combat discrimination and take other meaningful actions that overcome patterns of segregation and address significant disparities in housing needs and access to opportunities.”
Many housing reform advocates have homed in on the extensive restrictions and narrow requirements suburban towns enforce in zoning for everything from lot area and floor space to landscaping as effectively preventing diverse housing construction even where it is technically allowed.
Anderson pointed out Madison has allowed accessory apartments—dwelling spaces built on multi-family lots alongside the main housing structure—since 1989. The PZC is currently considering expanding the square footage of those buildings from 800 to 1,000, Anderson said, which was a number pushed for by reform advocates.
He also referenced two other recent tweaks to zoning in the town: allowing limited multi-family residences downtown and small-cluster “cottage” housing near the town center. Both of those very roughly mirror stipulations in the state bill, though Madison places many more restrictions on these developments compared to the state.
S.B. 1024 in its current form would require towns to allow cluster, mixed use, and multi-family housing “as of right” (meaning no special review process) in at least half of the land with city water and sewer that lies within half a mile of a “primary transit station,” and also within a quarter mile of downtown.
Cluster housing, which is currently only allowed through a special permit process and within 500 feet of commercial and zones and downtown, also places a large number of restrictions on potential developments, including only allowing one dwelling per 10,000 square feet (the state bill would allow one dwelling for approximately every 3,000), and dozens of other requirements for parking, landscaping, frontage, and “visual presence.”
Multi-family housing in downtown (also only allowed through special permit) comes with additional restrictions as well, including giving the PZC the power to consider “the optimal mix of residential units within the zoning district” when approving an application, and only allowing two-bedroom units.
The state bill also generally seeks to remove ambiguities that advocates have claimed allows local planning and zoning authorities to deny or delay many types of housing projects based on arbitrary criteria. It specifically removes the term “character” from the state statute, and replaces it with “physical site characteristics and architectural context.”
It would also task state officials with coming up with a set of standards and guidelines that could be voluntarily adopted by municipalities.
Anderson argued this is another area where Madison has already taken steps, singling out a 36-page document adopted in 2003 that details at least some specific design standards that clarify what constitutes the “character” of neighborhoods or streets in the Downtown Village District.
Zoning reform advocates have continued to argue that an overall lack of change over multiple decades (Madison actually has proportionally less affordable housing by the state’s definition than it did 18 years ago) despite incentives, and the continued racial and economic segregation prevalent between wealthy suburban towns and cities necessitates broader zoning reforms.
Anderson argued that a couple recent projects, including an affordable housing community on the southeast side of town that was well received and approved relatively quickly by the town boards, are evidence that Madison is able to make change on their own.
“We’re more looking for a little bit more targeted opportunities to try to increase affordable housing in areas where we think it’s probably most appropriate and makes the most sense,” he said.