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February 29, 2024

CT bill would offer distressed municipality funds to towns that build near public transit

GINNY MONK / CT MIRROR Rep. Tom O'Dea, R-New Canaan, testifies before the Planning and Development Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024 in the Legislative Office Building. O'Dea testified in support of a bill that would encourage towns to use transit-oriented development.

A proposal before the Planning and Development Committee to encourage more development near public transit hubs shows what some lawmakers and town officials mean when they say they want incentive-based approaches to zoning.

Much of the discussion around zoning reform in Connecticut has centered around whether to take a “carrot” approach, using incentives, or a “stick” approach, using mandates. Housing experts have long said that zoning reform is needed in Connecticut because it’s hard to build multi-family housing in much of the state due to local zoning restrictions.

Lawmakers and some town officials on Wednesday spoke in favor of House Bill 5278, which would offer grants that have been used to bolster economically depressed areas to towns that want to establish transit-oriented development. They could use the money to cover costs of city planning for this development.

“We don’t want to force communities to do something they don’t want to do,” said Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan, speaking in favor of the bill. “We want to give them encouragement, use the carrot approaches, as opposed to the stick approach.”

Both towns and distressed communities could get planning costs covered under the bill language. Some expressed reservations about the bill, saying it would pull money from a fund meant to help areas that are struggling.

Transit-oriented development is a land use concept that encourages density near public transportation hubs. The idea is to build communities where it’s easy to access businesses, residences and transportation by foot. Advocates say it would increase housing stock and be good for the environment.

O’Dea said he’d talked to other legislators who represent distressed communities who said their towns can’t use the funds. The state’s most fiscally and economically distressed towns have access to certain funds for housing, insurance, brownfield remediation and other growth purposes.

“Their opinions are ‘Look if we can’t use it, let’s encourage transit-oriented development in places like New Canaan,’” O’Dea said.

Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, is listed as the bill sponsor. Anwar said taking money from distressed municipalities was not the intent of the bill.

“We do have a problem in the state of Connecticut where we do not have enough development, especially transit-oriented development,” Anwar said in an interview. “We are seeing less of our young adults staying in the state and they like to be around transit-oriented developmental areas.”

He added that he thinks building with more density could help alleviate loneliness and that there should be more incentives for towns to build these types of districts.

The proposal is one of a couple of transit-oriented development measures that have been discussed this legislative session.

A proposal from Desegregate Connecticut known as Work, Live, Ride would also encourage development near train and bus stations. It would offer access to different infrastructure funding to towns that opt to build transit-oriented development. Some of those funds would likely include grants for programs like brownfield remediation. The proposal also includes work with the state Office of Responsible Growth, and advocates have said will include affordability incentives.

H.B. 5278 does not have affordability incentives.

Those in favor of H.B. 5278 said many Connecticut small towns don’t have access to resources for planning and want to build more housing and businesses near train stations.

Funding source

Planning and Development co-chair Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, D-Avon, pointed out that much of New Canaan, O’Dea’s district, is part of a priority funding area. State government sets these boundaries, and the information is in the state’s Conservation and Development Policies documents. Priority funding areas receive separate money for growth.

“Do you think that has not been a sufficient enough carrot in terms of getting people to build?” Kavros DeGraw said. “Because I would hope this at least, the majority of this would be affordable housing. Has that just not been a sufficient enough carrot?”

O’Dea said the bill would offer more flexibility, which would help towns.

H.B. 5278 would offer towns that want to build transit-oriented communities access to distressed municipality grants.

Last year, 25 towns including Windham, Hartford, Meriden, Bridgeport and New London were listed as distressed municipalities. Ten more that were formerly distressed are still eligible for these funds.

“I believe development around our train stations are a great way to develop and redevelop areas which could be or are already on the rise due to state investment in light rail, bus service and more,” said Chris Edge, economic development director for Berlin, which is not a distressed municipality. “Planning grants, which are proposals in this bill, are a key piece of the puzzle to look at and put concrete ideas on paper for not just change, but to create an avenue for investment for the private sector.”

Sean Ghio, policy director at the Partnership for Strong Communities, said in written testimony that the partnership supports the intent of the bill. 

“We ask the committee to consider amending the bill, so that planning grant funds for transit-oriented development are not taken from funding sources currently restricted to distressed municipalities,” Ghio wrote. “Planning grant funding for transit-oriented development should come from another source rather than decreasing the amount of existing grant funding already available to distressed municipalities.”

Carrot vs. stick

Transit-oriented development has been a growing trend across the United States in recent years, said George “Mac” McCarthy, president and chief executive officer at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a research and policy group.

Incentive-based approaches work for communities that already want to build, but need a boost for economic reasons, McCarthy said in a previous interview. But they often fall short, particularly in wealthy areas that don’t want affordable housing.

“They’ll pay higher property taxes, minimum lot requirements, do everything they can to exclude affordable housing,” McCarthy said. “So there’s almost no way that the incentives are going to be deep enough to get them to reconsider. So you need both the carrot and the stick.”

Opponents to past transit-oriented development proposals have also said they fear the loss of local control.

Committee ranking member Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, said that he’s heard from communities that want to build, but want incentives and want to decide where development goes.

“This proposal will kind of belie the notion that many of North Stamford’s residents and New Canaan’s residents don’t want to see anything built,” Fazio said. “It sounds like this reflects the will of a lot of the people we represent — that in fact, they do want to see housing built, and they just want to have some help [incentives] in leading how it is built.”

Kavros DeGraw said she wants to see all the transit-oriented development bills before deciding on the best course of action to move forward this session. But she has reservations because of the funding source and said the effects on funding for distressed municipalities needs to be under consideration.

“I do have some hesitation because if our towns that are already receiving priority funding don’t want to build affordable housing and they decide to only build senior housing or other types of market-rate housing, if that’s all you’re going to be building, then that is a problem for distressed municipalities,” Kavros-DeGraw said.

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