The History of Easton’s Zoning & its Impact on Affordable Housing Today

Like other small suburban communities throughout Connecticut, Easton is required to develop an affordable housing plan. Public Act 17-170 established a requirement that Connecticut municipalities adopt Affordable Housing Plans. PA 21-29 established an initial deadline of June 1, 2022, for municipalities to have adopted their first Affordable Housing Plans (and every five years thereafter). 2017PA-00170-R00HB-06880-PA.pdf (ct.gov)

Affordable housing has always been an admirable goal. Allowing seniors on a fixed income the opportunity to downsize into a more manageable residence and remain within the same town or offering young people who grew up in town an affordable place to live as a first home are both worthy options that most residents would welcome.

Before the residents of Easton offer their suggestions this week about how to formulate a new and more comprehensive plan to provide more affordable housing, we thought it might be a good idea to look at the history of zoning and the unique challenges that the town faces when it comes to developing a functional affordable housing plan.

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The Birth of Zoning Regulations in America

Communities across America first began to consider and then enact zoning regulations during the 1910’s. Towns and municipalities felt the need to exercise limited powers over land use to protect the health, safety, order, and general welfare of their residents. Managing drinking water and sewage in some of the larger communities was recognized as imperative to controlling the outbreak and spread of many infectious diseases such as typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. Uncontrolled growth and poor city planning as cities and towns continued to expand needed to be addressed for the well-being of all citizens.

According to the forward of the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act drafted in 1923 by the United States Department of Commerce: As of September 1921, only 48 cities and towns, with less than 11,000,000 inhabitants, had adopted zoning ordinances. By the end of 1923, a little more than two years later, zoning was in effect in 218 municipalities, with more than 22,000,000 inhabitants, and new ones were being added to the list each month.

These guidelines for municipalities to formulate zoning regulations were created in 1923.

The act was designed to assist local communities in their efforts to draft regulations that fit the needs of each municipality in such a manner that zoning requirements would be constructive and not arbitrary in order to avoid legal challenges in court. It was also made clear that new zoning policies only be enforced for future construction and would not apply retroactively to existing buildings.

Specifically, the act called for: The Grant of Power. — For the purpose of promoting health, safety, morals, or the general welfare of the community, the legislative body of cities and incorporated villages is hereby empowered to regulate and restrict the height, number of stories and size of buildings and other structures, the percentage of lot that may be occupied, the size of yards, courts, and other open spaces, the density of population, and the location and use of buildings, structures, and land for trade, industry, residence, or other purposes.

Such regulations shall be made in accordance with a comprehensive plan and designed to lessen congestion in the streets; to secure safety from fire, panic, and other dangers; to promote health and the general welfare; to provide adequate light and air; to prevent the overcrowding of land; to avoid undue concentration of population; to facilitate the adequate provision of transportation, water, sewerage, schools, parks, and other public requirements. Such regulations shall be made with reasonable consideration, among other things, to the character of the district and its peculiar suitability for particular uses, and with a view to conserving the value of buildings and encouraging the most appropriate use of land throughout such municipality.

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Prelude To Easton’s Adoption of Zoning Regulations

The year was 1927 and the town of Easton was just beginning the slow transformation from farming community to residential haven for the industrial hubs of Southern Fairfield County. The earlier part of the century had witnessed an influx of Eastern European settlers who were both willing and able to eke a living out of some of Easton’s poorer farmland as the descendants of the town’s earliest settlers began moving away from the family business of farming and transitioning to more lucrative endeavors in cities like Bridgeport. The first farms to fall victim to the transition to more housing were almost all located atop Sport Hill, where approximately 800 acres of land was nearly perfect for erecting those three-bedroom bungalows with indoor plumbing that would forever change the landscape of the southern part of town. It was early summer that year when the sale of a single 50-foot by 300-foot parcel would create one of the largest controversies in the town’s history.

The base of one of the two huge radio transmission towers that WICC built on Sport Hill Road in 1927 – before there were zoning laws that would have prohibited their construction.

John Candee was the seller and the company that owned Bridgeport radio station WICC was the buyer. Almost overnight, two concrete pads appeared, and construction began on two steel towers. In 1927, the Town of Easton had no zoning laws and no building regulations, for if they had, the town might have had an advanced opportunity to thwart the construction of the radio station’s new broadcasting facility. Instead, the good people of Easton scrambled to enact new laws and new regulations after the project had already begun. In a classic case of “closing the barn door after the horse had escaped” they had little chance at altering the eventual outcome.

WICC – the ICC standing for Bridgeport’s designation as the “Industrial Capital of Connecticut” – had been in operation since November 21, 1926, with studios at 1188 Main Street and a broadcast antenna atop one of the buildings downtown. Originally approved to broadcast with 500 watts, complaints began almost immediately that the station was overpowering and drowning out all nearby radio frequencies. The Federal Radio Commission soon lowered the station’s broadcast output to 250 watts and WICC’s owner, the Bridgeport Broadcasting Company, began its search for a more suitable site for its transmission tower that would also allow it to increase the output to its original level.

The Easton location was perfect. At least to the owners of the station, Mr. Candee, and the Federal Radio Commission. The FRC approved the site just one day before a town meeting hastily approved a rough set of zoning rules and appointed a board to oversee them. Amongst the new regulations was the provision that no radio transmission towers be built within 1500 feet of any residence. Nice try, but the towers were already built, and the broadcast building was halfway completed. The town’s council, Sport Hill resident Howard Shaff, would spend the next few weeks attempting to get a judge – any judge – to hear the town’s plea for a temporary injunction against the station. None was forthcoming.

Town meetings throughout July and early August were contentious. Landowners in the northern part of town were skeptical of any attempt to create zoning laws and building requirements. The new zoning commission wanted to enforce laws that had not been properly approved by the residents and things on that front began to fall apart.

Other area towns, aware of Easton’s attempts to stop the radio station, moved quickly to adopt similar restrictions – restrictions that would be enforceable since they were created before a problem existed, rather than after.

On July 21, 1927, 24 residents or property owners on Sport Hill signed a petition and presented it to the Federal Radio Commission in a last-ditch effort to get them to change their mind about granting WICC a license to broadcast from Easton. This group owned about 90 percent of the 800 acres atop the ridge and what today consists of most of the developed subdivisions south of Flat Rock Road. In early August, a group of those petitioners took the train to Washington D.C. to plead their case before the Commission. That too failed.

In December of 1927, WICC began a decade of broadcasts from the top of Sport Hill Road. The ugly steel towers are now long gone, but the square, hip-roofed building that held the broadcasting equipment is still standing and being used as a residence.

The Great Recession delayed the creation of a complete and comprehensive set of zoning laws, but by the time Easton finally adopted theirs on June 25, 1941, the stated purposes of the regulations were carefully worded so that they would not be misconstrued as being discriminatory with regards to either race, religion, or economic standing. They perfectly fit the requirements of the 1923 Zoning Enabling Act and would be able to withstand any legal challenges they might face in court.

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1941 – Easton Finalizes its First Zoning Regulations

When Easton adopted its first zoning regulations in 1941, the town was divided into two distinct residential zones. Zone RA set a minimum lot size going forward of 40,000 square feet – approximately .91 Acre with a minimum buildable area of 37,000 square feet to be located within the boundaries of that lot. That zone began at the Fairfield town line and extended 1,000 feet beyond Flat Rock & Beers Roads as a northern boundary. The western boundary was Morehouse Road, and the eastern boundary was South Park Avenue. The remainder of the town, Zone RB, was zoned for minimum 3-acre lots with 2 acres of buildable space on each lot.

Almost all of Zone RA was supplied by municipal water lines, but individual septic systems were still required for waste removal. 40,000 square feet was considered large enough to safely filter wastewater discharge without causing polluted ground waters to enter the nearby reservoirs of the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company. This area was below any streambeds that fed those reservoirs, so the smaller lots were acceptable.

The other probable factor in this designation was that the most politically connected Easton landowners owned most of the land on top of Sport Hill and were already selling building lots, some as small as one-half acre. The Kent, Marsh, Disbrow, and Senior families all owned large parcels suitable for building and several new roads exiting from Sport Hill had already been built or were in the final planning stages. Power surely played a role here, but those smaller lots also meant smaller homes that would sell for less money. In essence, those smaller building lots created an ample supply of affordable housing for young families looking to live in Easton. This would prove to be especially true during the first two decades after the end of WWII.

Zone RB was mostly within the vast upstream watershed area that fed the local reservoirs. Easton’s land was generally quite rocky and the need to drill individual wells and install individual septic systems required larger parcels to assure clean ground water. While certainly an arbitrary figure, the required 3 acres was still within the normal range (2 to 3 acres) that most surrounding rural communities were then requiring for building lots where neither city water nor city sewers were available or in the planning stages. Again, there was likely a power play with this decision. Samuel P. Senior was the president of the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company and maintaining larger tracts of undeveloped land meant cleaner groundwater. Mr. Senior was very influential in town politics by that time. With the BHC being the single largest employer in the town of Easton, making sure the new zoning regulations protected the company’s watershed lands would have been a reasonable decision.

Easton residents in 1941 were content with keeping commercial enterprises to a minimum.

Additionally, the majority of the town’s rural residents then favored little or no further commercial development. Allowing too many smaller buildable lots would have overtaxed the town’s coffers when it came to building schools, providing police & fire protection, and building & maintaining roads. In 1941, the only fully paved roads in Easton were Sport Hill to Union Cemetery, the Black Rock Turnpike, Westport Road, Center Road, and the Monroe Turnpike (Stepney Road). These were all maintained by the state at that time. The town maintained no paved roads. Fire protection was a 100% volunteer operation with no consistent town funding. The department had only the one Sanford pumper truck built in 1928 to fight its fires. The only fire hydrants were south of Flat Rock Road. Police protection consisted of one full-time paid officer. The only operating school in town was Samuel Staples Elementary that serviced K-8. High School education was provided by the town paying tuition to the City of Bridgeport for its high-school aged students as well as hiring a bus to transport them from Easton to Bridgeport. With little in the way of commercial ventures contributing to the tax base, zoning the town for 3, 4 or even 5 times as many residences would have made Easton’s taxes explode as the town’s infrastructure would have needed to grow dramatically to meet the needs of that many families.

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Easton’s Unique Situation with Regards to Affordability

In 1941, Easton’s new zoning was a matter of sound economic policy. It’s highly doubtful that even the most farsighted Easton residents would have imagined the explosion of growth that lower Fairfield County would experience after the war. Planning ten, twenty, or thirty years in the future wasn’t in the cards.

The Easton of 1941 was not an affluent community by any standards of the day. The wealthiest homeowners were mostly made up of summer residents whose primary residences were in New York City, the place where most of them worked. Easton was still a farming community that was just beginning to grow. Growth wouldn’t mushroom until after the war – a good half dozen or more years after Easton’s two zones had been established. The economically challenged weren’t looking to move into Easton in 1941, they were still looking to move out. Residents of nearby cities such as Bridgeport weren’t envious of Easton’s excellent education system because their own elementary schools were better equipped, and their high schools were the same ones that Easton residents were paying to have their children bussed to.

When Easton did begin to grow after the war, the town had some severe limitations when it came to accommodating that growth. The Bridgeport Hydraulic Company’s three large reservoir systems cut the town off from much of Trumbull, Fairfield and Weston on an east-west basis. The BHC lands limited growth in the southern part of Easton to the Sport Hill Road and Morehouse Highway corridors. The smaller building lots in Zone RA were quickly developed and the truly affordable houses were soon gone.

Since the town’s zoning limited commercial growth, and the smaller lots were all gone, no one in the community saw any need for sewers or additional municipal water lines. Most of the remaining acreage was zoned for 3-acres and lots of that size offered more than sufficient space to accommodate wells and individual septic systems. Adding municipal services would have been an unnecessary and extremely costly proposition.

As the years progressed, the town’s schools became known for their excellence and the peaceful rural character of the community made it a more desirable place to live than some of the other busier suburban towns in lower Fairfield County. With the limited supply of homes due to earlier zoning decisions, both prices and taxes increased substantially. Truly affordable housing became a thing of the past.

Unfortunately, increasing the amount of affordable housing in today’s Easton is going to be rather challenging. With over 7,000 acres of Easton’s land currently protected from future development (open space or Aquarion owned), there are a limited number of large parcels available for the type of development that would be needed to accommodate affordable housing projects. In addition, owners of many Easton farms have taken advantage of government programs that financially compensated them for future development rights, preventing those lands from being turned into subdivisions for residential construction going forward.

As of 1/30/2022, the median price of an available building lot in Easton was $215,000. Builders looking to provide affordable housing in Easton would need to be able to avail themselves of cluster zoning, something Easton does not currently allow. However, cluster zoning presents certain septic and well water issues that can be prohibitively expensive to address and continually manage. Without municipal sewer connections, cluster zoning alone would be unlikely to lower the cost of suitable building lots enough for builders to construct homes that fit the affordable housing criteria in Easton.

The conundrum is real, the solution evasive. How the town will formulate a workable plan to address the State’s requirements is yet to be seen.

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