Civil Rights Attorneys Take Aim At Single-Family Zoning Using Woodbridge As Test Case | Connecticut Public Radio
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Civil Rights Attorneys Take Aim At Single-Family Zoning Using Woodbridge As Test Case

Sep 29, 2020

Woodbridge — It was 2009 when the country club in this affluent New Haven suburb started sliding into bankruptcy.

Fearful that the 150-acre property would be scooped up by a developer looking to build affordable or multi-family housing, Woodbridge officials purchased the property that spring for $7 million.

“This is the kind of property that is prime for that. Woodbridge does not have affordable housing to speak of, and it has the potential services for this kind of development,” the town attorney told residents at their annual meeting before they voted to purchase the property. “This [purchase] is to give you control of this property going forward.”

Fast-forward to 2020 and this leafy suburb still has virtually no affordable housing. Woodbridge continues to prohibit multi-family housing, 1.5 acres is required to build a single family home nearly everywhere in town, and only 35 housing units in town are reserved for low-income residents – nearly all of which are solely for elderly residents. In the last 30 years, just three two-unit homes have received a permit to be built, compared to 281 single-family homes.

A group of prominent civil rights attorneys is looking to change that. Today, this group will take their opening salvo at dismantling the town’s finely tuned zoning regulations.

Attorneys from the Open Communities Alliance, joined by law students and professors at a fair housing development clinic at Yale Law School, are asking Woodbridge’s Planning and Zoning Commission to approve their application to build a four-unit house on a 1.5-acre lot that is zoned for a single-family home – and, more importantly, to completely overhaul local zoning regulations to allow the town’s “fair share” of affordable housing to be built. The application is different from a typical zoning application in that it focuses almost entirely on the need for a systemic overhaul of the town’s “exclusionary” zoning regulations, as opposed to seeking approval to break ground on a single project.

If the town rejects the group’s application, the attorneys are prepared to appeal the decision in court. The case has potential statewide implications for other Connecticut towns with similar zoning restrictions if the courts ultimately determine Woodbridge’s regulations have led to discriminatory housing practices.

“The zoning regulations enact a town-wide ban on multi-family housing, shutting the doors of their privileged community to many who would benefit from access to it,” the application says. “The town of Woodbridge is segregated. It has used its own zoning regime to segregate itself … Exclusionary zoning practices are perhaps as insidious as outright racial segregation because they exclude substantial numbers of people of color but do so while pretending to be race neutral.”

The chairman of the town’s planning commission declined to comment Tuesday morning.

“This is an application that will come before the Woodbridge Planning and Zoning Commission. I cannot comment on this application outside of and in advance of our public process. I look forward to reviewing the application as part of that public process,” said Robert Klee, who was appointed P&Z chairman in 2019. Klee was commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection under former Gov. Dannel Malloy.

In their 145-page application, the team of attorneys describe what they say is Woodbridge’s history of ignoring its legal obligation to meet the region’s demand for housing. They also allege constitutional violations because of the resulting segregation in town. In Woodbridge, 99% of the residentially zoned land is reserved for single-family homes and requires a 1.5-acre minimum. Just 3% of the population there is Black, compared to 10% statewide.

This outcome is by design, the lawyers argue.

“That’s a feature, not a bug,” they write of the zoning codes.

They also document the fierce pushback officials receive every time there is an application to develop affordable or multi-family housing in town. Efforts to allow development on even a small section of the vast, former country club, for example, have been rejected repeatedly by the Planning and Zoning Commission following public backlash, despite the half a million dollars in maintenance fees the town has been paying each year to keep up the property.

The resistance typically comes from residents who are worried such development will harm the rural character of the town or are concerned about a steep rise in school enrollment, the lawyers said. School enrollment is actually down in Woodbridge, state data shows, and the attorneys say fears about the character of the town changing are not a legitimate reason to allow segregation to thrive.

“I can’t see into their hearts, but the pattern that emerges from the history seems undeniable,” said Karen Anderson, a law student at Yale who spent hours at Woodbridge Town Hall reading through land use records. “Over and over, when presented with proposals to make the town a little bit more inclusive, there’s this contingent of Woodbridge residents that creates a backlash and town officials give into it.”

How did Connecticut get here?

Despite its liberal reputation — and Democrats controlling the legislature for the last 23 years and the governor’s mansion for nine — Connecticut is one of the most segregated places in the country.

The suburbs surrounding New Haven are more exclusive than Silicon Valley, which is notorious for its high housing costs, according to research from Professor Robert C. Ellickson at Yale Law School. The towns of Bethany, Madison, Orange and Woodbridge designate more than 98% of their residentially zoned land solely for single-family dwellings, built on lots of at least 1 acre. In each town less than 3% of the population is Black.

The state does have a civil rights watchdog agency that has the authority to challenge systemic exclusionary zoning, but it has never done so. Beginning in the late-1970s that watchdog agency – the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities – issued reports on how pervasive the problem was, but efforts to set up enforcement efforts to take down discriminatory exclusionary practices never came to fruition.

Recently, Desegregate Connecticut, a group formed by UConn Law Professor Sara Bronin to lobby the legislature to reform zoning laws, asked the agency to study the issue once again.

A spokeswoman for the agency said the CHRO has not made a decision yet whether it will do so.

“It’s definitely a massive issue [but] is it something we have the capacity to do?” said Michelle Dumas Keuler, an attorney at CHRO and spokeswoman for the watchdog. “We already have the statutory authority, but whether we would look into getting further staff appropriated for purposes of doing bigger impact litigation – I can’t comment on that.”

Federal enforcement has not been any more effective.

“I wish we hadn’t had a generations-long underinvestment in civil rights enforcement in this country, including here in Connecticut,” said Anika Singh Lemar, a professor at Yale Law School and one of the lawyers in the group. “I wouldn’t want people to think that no Fair Housing Act claims have been brought because there’s no problems. I mean, they have happened, it just turns out there’s lots of barriers to people being able to enforce.”

Without enforcement, wealthy towns regularly sidestep approval of affordable housing through finely tuned zoning regulations or by purchasing a property – like the Woodbridge country club – at risk of being developed into affordable housing.

“It is very common for wealthy towns to use their wealth to purchase land that might otherwise be developed as affordable housing,” said Singh Lemar, pointing to examples in SimsburyWestport, and Wilton.

While Connecticut has laws that regulate a town’s obligation to help with the region’s housing needs, enforcement is often elusive, said Erin Boggs, the executive director of Open Communities Alliance.

“Connecticut’s zoning and land use law has been set up in a way to have virtually no oversight by the state despite the fact that zoning is an authority that is delegated to towns,” said Boggs. “In my experience in the state for the last 20 years … the most meaningful civil rights changes do not take place without some kind of impetus in the form of civil rights litigation. So while I sincerely hope that is unnecessary, that has been the history.”

Any challenge to local zoning control or effort to bolster enforcement through legislation faces an uphill battle in a legislature dominated by suburban lawmakers who represent communities that have fought changes for years.

As the CT Mirror and ProPublica reported last year, more than three dozen towns in the state have blocked construction of any privately developed duplexes and apartments within their borders for the last two decades. As far back as data has been kept, Connecticut’s low-income housing has been concentrated in poor cities and towns, an imbalance that has not budged over the last three decades. In Hartford, some neighborhoods have as much as 70% of the housing units reserved for low-income residents.

Woodbridge has roughly three months to hold public hearings on Boggs’ application. A decision could be made by the town anywhere from two months to six months after that.