A familiar scene played out at the Feb. 27 meeting of the Cheshire Planning and Zoning Commission.
Timothy Penton of Cheshire came up to a podium in Town Council chambers and explained to Commissioners that he plans to renovate an existing garage on his property into a living space for an in-law. Town Planner Michael Glidden informed PZC Chair Earl Kurtz III that Penton’s proposed work meets all Town regulations. With no one from the public offering input on the project, and the Commissioners satisfied with the staff report, Kurtz closed the public hearing on the special permit application for an accessory apartment.
All in all, the hearing lasted just over a minute.
A motion on Penton’s special permit application passed with unanimous approval once the PZC’s regular meeting came to order shortly thereafter. Now, the PZC is proposing changing its own regulations (Section 30-5 of the Cheshire Planning and Zoning Regulations) via text amendment in order to save applicants like Penton time and money on what is generally little more than a formality — so long as other appropriate permits and approvals have been secured.
As Glidden explained, “Nothing is changing for the qualifying or design standards. The Commission wanted to change the approval portion of the regulations so that homeowners didn’t have to go through an expensive public hearing process.”
Applying for a residential special permit currently costs an applicant over $300 in state and local fees, in addition to building permits and any other associated fees collected by the Town. Lack of housing, particularly for seniors and others who may have limited or fixed incomes, is an oft-cited problem in Connecticut. Finding ways to support a relative in need of a place to live has long been allowed as a part of Cheshire’s zoning codes. And Kurtz has remarked on several occasions that the public hearings and application fees pose an undue burden on residents.
However, some of the requirements of the Town’s existing regulations put Cheshire at odds with new changes in state law as well.
In 2021, Connecticut passed Public Act 21-29, which among other things seeks to liberalize local land use restrictions regarding accessory apartments in order to increase housing stock. To that end, legislators mandated several changes to local land use ordinances. Many of these changes became effective as of Jan. 1, 2022.
Hartford-based law firm Halloran Sage explains in a blog post about the Act that “(the) accessory dwelling regulations do not override: (A) applicable building code requirements, (B) the ability of a municipality to prohibit or limit the use of accessory apartments for short-term rentals or vacation stays, or (C) other requirements where a well or private sewerage system is being used, provided approval for any such accessory apartment shall not be unreasonably withheld.”
Cheshire’s regulations, in their current state, require that an accessory apartment is to be used only by a family member — related by blood, marriage or adoption to a resident of the main dwelling unit — and is not to be rented or used for income purposes. It also calls for features like an internal door connecting it to the main dwelling unit.
By contrast, Public Act 21-29 prohibits local land use authorities from requiring “(A) a passageway between any such accessory apartment and any such principal dwelling, (B) an exterior door for any such accessory apartment, except as required by the applicable building or fire code, (C) more than one parking space for any such accessory apartment, or fees in lieu of parking otherwise allowed by section 8-2c of the general statutes, (D) a familial, marital or employment relationship between occupants of the principal dwelling and accessory apartment, (E) a minimum age for occupants of the accessory apartment, (F) separate billing of utilities otherwise connected to, or used by, the principal dwelling unit, or (G) periodic renewals for permits for such accessory apartments,” per Halloran Sage’s explainer.
A public hearing on the proposed zone text amendment is scheduled for the next PZC meeting, to be held on Monday, March 13.