By David M. Kooris – Stamford Advocate
I write to provide a counterpoint to state Rep. David Michel’s Jan. 5 op-ed advocating for a change to Stamford’s charter to make members of Stamford’s Planning Board and Zoning Board directly elected, rather than populated through the appointments process currently common to all boards and commissions. I’ve been a practicing urban planner for nearly two decades, working in communities throughout Connecticut and across the country. I’m a member in good standing of the American Institute of Certified Planners and of the national and state chapters of the American Planning Association. Based on my professional experience, elected land use boards are not objectively better than those that are appointed; for social and equity outcomes, elected boards have often proven to be worse.
Rep. Michel couches his conclusion within a seemingly definitive statement that “most municipalities” elect members to their land use boards. While I haven’t exhaustively explored whether a true majority of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities or the nation’s nearly 90,000 local governments elect or appoint to these bodies, we should be more interested in the processes employed by those municipalities that are most like us and those that we most want to be like.
The other four Connecticut cities with populations over 100,000 (Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford, and Waterbury) all have appointed land use boards; so does the nearby City of Norwalk. For Stamford’s future, though, we should be benchmarking against similar cities orbiting major metropolitan cores with successful downtowns and comparable potential. Sampling just a few of our peers that we look to on each coast, the land use boards of Arlington (Virginia), Bellevue (Washington) and Evanston (Illinois) are all appointed.
The recommendation for change comes from a hope for different outcomes. Rental apartments are one of the hallmarks of recent development that Rep. Michel purports elected boards would protect our community against. It is time to bury the outdated trope that rental housing is inherently inferior to home-ownership and plays no positive role in our community. Rep. Michel makes claim that there is “an exodus of taxpayers replaced by renters” as if a portion of every renters’ monthly payment to their landlords do not ultimately come to the city as property taxes paid by the owner. Every resident of the city is a taxpayer, whether they pay the city directly or via their rent.
As a representative of Stamford’s Downtown, I am alarmed by the way Rep. Michel denigrates the value of renters to our community, stating in several different ways that their role in our city is lesser than those who have “owned homes for three generations.” According to the U.S. Census 2019 Community Survey, Connecticut’s 146th House district which Rep. Michel is elected from is dominated by renters (71 percent of all residents). Are these nearly 22,000 voices and their hopes for our community being heard? Rental units provide an entrée to our community for young professionals and new families, house some of the future homeowners of our single family housing stock, provide an opportunity to age-in-place and downsize for empty-nesters, and are a long-term option that shouldn’t be looked down upon for households who don’t want to or are unable to own a home for any number of reasons.
The unfounded arguments against rental units are particularly pertinent because it is in those communities with elected land use boards that those bodies serve as gatekeepers to exclude others and their most-used tool is single-family zoning and the near-prohibition of multi-family rental apartments. When you need to run for your seat every two or four years, the positions you take tend to cave to the loudest voices in the community who aren’t always those most open to change. Elected land use boards have been some of the greatest perpetuators of the exclusionary policies undergirding the segregation that Rep. Michel rightfully calls out for change. With the exception of Greenwich, all of the nearby, highly exclusionary towns — New Canaan, Darien, Westport, Wilton and Fairfield — have elected planning and zoning commissions. Stamford has never, and should never, emulate the land use policies in these towns.
It’s important to note that land use board members in Connecticut are not subject to any continuing education requirements as they are in some other states. I mention this because there is no guarantee that an elected member has any relevant experience or expertise necessary to assess complex proposals and the positive or negative impacts that they may have on a neighborhood. The appointment process, however, controls for this. The mayor, voted into office by and accountable to the residents of the city, is able to draw from the whole community and select individuals based on their relevant qualifications. The approval process by the Board of Representatives provides a second layer of vetting by a body made up of elected officials representing their distinct neighborhood interests.
Directly electing members of the land use boards increases the likelihood that decision-making is driven by short-term campaigns and loud voices rather than long-term planning, objective analysis, and expertise. Use local elections to hold this and future mayors and Boards of Representatives accountable for their appointments to the land use boards; don’t politicize the development process by introducing direct elections.
David M. Kooris is president of Stamford Downtown and former member of the Boards of Representatives and Finance.