Zoning in Greenwich: Part II
Beyond Greenwich’s borders, these debates have attracted attention from the national media, from the Wall Street Journal to PBS NewsHour to The New York Times. An issue that inspires such controversy and strong feelings warrants not just debate, but a rigorous exploration of history. This history reveals that Greenwich’s residential development was not merely the accident of individuals’ choices in the aggregate, but the product of conscious public policy decisions.
In Part I of this three-part series, I provided context for why we should care about zoning reform in Greenwich. In Part II, I dive into the history of our zoning regulations and how they have shaped Greenwich’s development.
Origins of Zoning in Greenwich
Greenwich gained the power to zone thanks to the passage of the Zoning Enabling Act by the Connecticut legislature in July 1925, and the Greenwich Town Plan Commission was the first such body to form under the Act. The motivations behind the establishment of zoning, in Greenwich as elsewhere, are the subject of debate. Some argue that the foundations of zoning were primarily intended to separate dangerous and odorous land uses from residential areas and to protect the flow of light and air; others contend that zoning codes were used to supplement or replace other means of racial segregation that had been struck down in court.
What we do know is that the Greenwich Chamber of Commerce lobbied the state for three years to pass the Act, indicating a commercial motivation behind its establishment. What we also know is that Greenwich was hardly welcoming to all races at the time. Three years after the formation of the Town Plan Commission, the Ku Klux Klan of Greenwich proudly openly held a Field Day at Bruce Park. I do not allege a connection between these two events—but the latter does suggest that the zoning code almost surely did not account for racial inclusion and very plausibly may have intended to drive the opposite result.
Although the Great Depression hit Greenwich hard, by the mid-1930s the Town was experiencing a building boom. Between 1932 and 1937, the estimated value of annual new construction grew from $1,069,000 to $3,597,000. The Town Plan Commission (TPC) responded to this rapid growth with new restrictions. In 1936, the TPC passed a limit on the height of buildings in one and two-acre zones to 2.5 stories, and in 1939 imposed a four-story limit for apartment houses in a residential area.
Interestingly, these regulations were not without opposition; for example, Field Point Road residents agitated for a six-story limit.
Following World War II, demand for housing in Town soared. As detailed in a recent law review article, “The Town liberally allowed property owners to subdivide property, feeding a massive expansion of Greenwich’s housing stock and a near doubling of the Town’s population between 1940 and 1970.” The Greenwich Housing Authority, formed in 1946, completed construction of a 40-unit development in 1947, a 72-unit development in 1949, and 144-unit development in 1951.
In response to this growth, the Town moved to stem the tide of population growth and integration. First, the Town replaced the relatively pro-development Town Plan Commission with a new, more development-skeptical body—the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z)—in 1952. Within two years, P&Z passed a major rezoning of Riverside, Bell Haven, Field Point, and Mead’s Point with the express purpose of limiting new residential development in these areas. In 1957, P&Z rezoned 1088 acres of land in the Rock Ridge, Deer Park, and Round Hill areas to increase the minimum lot size from one to two acres; this was followed by rezonings of the Byram Shore neighborhood in 1965, sections of Pemberwick, downtown, Old Greenwich, and Riverside in 1968, and the Lake Avenue area in 1972 to decrease density.
This period was punctuated by vocal advocacy on both sides of the issue. In July 1965, 24 civic associations went on record with their public opposition to any further zoning that would increase the number of dwellings in any given acreage. That same year, a group of 47 prospective residents seeking to purchase half-acre lots in backcountry lost a lawsuit challenging Greenwich’s four-acre zoning restrictions in that area. Similar legal challenges to Greenwich’s zoning regulations led in part by the Stanwich Half-Acre Rezoning Enterprises (SHARE) failed in 1972 and 1975.
During this period, Greenwich’s population plateaued and declined for the first time in its history. While the Town’s population grew 68% between 1940 and 1970, the population fell by 173 people between 1970 and 1980. With the pipeline of new housing supply cut off, the Town’s population has remained remarkably flat from that time through the present.
These decisions affected not just the total population of the Town but who could afford to live there. Had the Town agreed to reduce minimum lot sizes in backcountry from four-acres to a half-acre, the resulting housing would have been much more affordable. The effects of these policy decisions reverberate today. To make things concrete, the makeup of my classrooms at Parkway School would have been significantly different if—30 years prior to my attendance—Greenwich P&Z had acted differently or if a state court judge had followed the lead of judges in New Jersey and elsewhere that struck down similar restrictions.
In the 1990s and 2000s, incomes and property values soared in Greenwich as it became a global capital of the burgeoning hedge fund industry. But in spite of this economic boom, the number of housing units in Town remained flat. Rather, existing single-family homes were replaced by McMansions, even in areas formerly regarded as “middle class districts.”
The surge in demand and constriction on new supply drove huge increases in property values, which grew at an annualized rate of nearly 15 percent between 2003 and 2007.
Greenwich’s track record of constructing affordable housing during this period has been particularly poor. In the late 1990s, the Greenwich Housing Authority—the agency tasked with developing and operating public housing units in town—proposed to build 92 affordable elderly units adjacent to an existing complex at Quarry Knoll in Downtown Greenwich. This move pitted the Housing Authority against the Planning & Zoning Commission, which blocked the development after neighbors complained. The Housing Authority appealed this denial under Connecticut’s affordable housing appeals statute and won, only for the Town to appeal the case to the Connecticut Supreme Court where the Housing Authority again prevailed. Despite winning the lawsuit—which cost the Town, which was effectively litigating both sides, hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars—the Housing Authority did not proceed with the project.
Since that time, the Housing Authority—which has since rebranded to Greenwich Communities, perhaps to dissociate from the stigma attached to public housing—has constructed precious few new units. Instead, they have focused on renovating existing units and purchasing an existing market-rate building in 2013. Compared against its early activity—during which it constructed over 250 units in its first five years of existence—or even the 1980s and 1990s, when the Housing Authority built or acquired over 300 units across eight developments, this absence of new development marks a pronounced shift in the Town’s commitment to housing development, particularly for those with low or moderate incomes.
In recent years, the Town has moved further in the antidevelopment direction. In 2017, in response to an outcry over perceived overdevelopment, P&Z banned multifamily development in many of the few neighborhoods where it was still allowed. This same outcry led to the ouster of the P&Z chair, Richard Maitlan, for being too development-friendly, despite a development-skeptical track record. P&Z subsequently enacted a moratorium on its moderate-income housing density-bonus program in 2019; while the original moratorium stated that it “shall not exceed 12 months,” P&Z passed another 12-month extension after its original expiration. Meanwhile, P&Z has rejected numerous proposals for new multifamily developments, including several with set-asides for affordable housing, in recent years.
Figure 1: Where Four-Unit Housing is Allowed Today
Figure 2: Where Four-Unit Housing Was Allowed Prior to 2017
Over the past 70 years, Greenwich’s zoning policies and practices have become progressively stricter, erecting walls around our community. In Part III, I delve into the concrete policies Greenwich should enact to put our Town back on track.
Nicholas Abbott is a Greenwich resident, a Harvard Law School student, and the American Planning Association’s Daniel J. Curtin fellow.