Apartment ban: ‘Arbitrary’ rule or savior of neighborhoods?

 

The ongoing conversion of the former Ramada Inn hotel — later known as the Stratford Hotel — on Lordship Boulevard into an apartment complex was allowed by getting an exemption to an old zoning law that bans new apartment and condo complexes almost anywhere in town. — Brad Durrell photo

Whether to change an old zoning regulation that prohibits multi-family developments from being built in most of Stratford may get a fresh look this year.

Section 5.3 of the town’s zoning regulations, enacted more than a half-century ago, essentially bans the construction of new buildings with more than eight apartments or condominium units by instituting what is called a bedroom equivalency cap.

Jay Habansky, Stratford planning and zoning administrator, said he’s never seen a similar zoning regulation anywhere else. Habansky said he’s discussed the town’s bedroom equivalency cap with other municipal planners who have decades of experience, “and they’ve never heard of this before.”

There are exemptions to the Stratford regulation. The cap doesn’t apply to 8-30g affordable housing developments or in the Transit-Oriented Development, Army Engine Plant and Shakespeare Theatre special overlay zoning districts, or any new overlay districts that might be created and made exempt.

The rule also doesn’t impact proposals that request and receive a change in the zoning regulations to be exempt, such as the ongoing conversion of the former Ramada Inn hotel on Lordship Boulevard into 69 apartments that won Zoning Commission approval.

The cap regulation was passed in 1964, when town officials wanted to make sure neighborhoods weren’t overburdened with multi-family development. Their goal was to spread out multi-family development so it didn’t concentrate in any one part of town.

But modern land-use planning practices often favor having lots of multi-family development in or near town and village centers with transit options and existing infrastructure, preventing sprawl in the process.

It’s important to note that for zoning purposes, apartments and condominiums are treated the same — both are multi-family developments, or what is called “residence apartments” in local zoning laws.

 

The rule

The Stratford regulation can be confusing to understand. Enacted in 1964, it limits the total number of multi-family units in town to 604.5 bedroom equivalents, or to a maximum 100 bedroom equivalents in each of 13 designated neighborhoods.

The bedroom equivalency limit was reached a long time ago, and a townwide cap thereafter went into effect.

Some people think the limitation is a good idea and some don’t. Supporters believe the cap stops inappropriate development in residential neighborhoods, protecting single-family homeowners.

“This opens up all the neighborhoods in town to higher-density housing,” said then Zoning Commissioner Dave Fuller, a cap supporter, when the idea of ending the cap was debated during a 2017 meeting. “That changes the character of a neighborhood. People buy a single-family home for a reason.”

Richard Fredette, the new Zoning Commission chairman, said he’s open to the commission further discussing the issue.

“It’s something I think, at the least, would be good for commissioners to begin a conversation on,” Fredette said. “We could take another look at it. If it’s something we want to revisit, we could do that. And if we want to leave it in place, we can do that. I’d be open to discussing it.”

Last year, Habansky drafted a memo on the issue for the Zoning Commission, which recommended ending the cap and included regulation language on how to do that. No formal action was taken on his recommendation.

Habansky wrote that multi-family development is better controlled by designating what zoning districts it’s allowed in, and requiring special case permits so specific proposals can be properly scrutinized based on such criteria as lot size, density, height, setbacks, parking, and outdoor recreation space.

“Regulation of apartment complexes is an important zoning tool in a community, and can be achieved by other means related to allowable density and conditions of approval,” he wrote.

The memo noted that Stratford has “no specific zoning [district] for multi-family residential development,” although it’s allowed in densely developed residential and more intense commercial zones. However, the cap prevents any such proposals not allowed through an exemption.

 

‘Arbitrary cap’

Habansky wrote that current restrictions are “arbitrary caps” and “do little to achieve their original intent, and create significant  confusion and administrative burden for applicants and staff.” The rule also “is exceedingly confusing” and inconsistent with the town’s long-range planning goals, according to his memo.

He wrote that “the concentration of development around existing infrastructure” can be beneficial because it “mitigates the expansion of infrastructure and attributable maintenance costs.”

Most local developers are familiar with the bedroom equivalency regulation, Habansky said, but he has to explain the rule to developers from outside the region. “I explain it to them and they usually go away, or try to figure out a way to work around it,” he said.

He said he understands some people in town don’t want the situation to change. But he said having “diversity in housing stock” can buffer a community when there’s a real estate recession and help attract those who want to live in denser locations, such as young professionals and retirees.

“If you complain about taxes being too high, you should have a more diversified housing market,” Habansky said.

The cap issue remains on the Zoning Commission agenda for possible action, he said. “We have a whole new commission now,”  and it will be up to them if they want to take the matter up, Habansky said.

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