In the new year, New Haven will have to look elsewhere for help in decoding and applying the city’s maze of far-reaching zoning ordinances. The Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA), which processes all requests for exceptions to the Elm City’s zoning ordinances, lost its deputy director with the resignation of Tom Talbot on Jan. 4.
Talbot, who served in City Hall for more than a decade, guided members of the BZA — often community members without specific expertise in the city’s ordinances — through appeals. While many of the case-by-case tasks of the Board appear mundane, questions about what kinds of exceptions to the ordinances should be granted, as well as when and why, have reflected the city’s big-picture questions on development, accessibility and community building.
“Talbot’s expertise and longevity with regard to New Haven’s zoning matters will be very difficult to replace,” mayoral spokesperson Laurence Grotheer said. “He had earned a well-honed sensitivity about the city’s needs and priorities and was able to factor that into the decisions and recommendations he made.”
The BZA draws on a variety of community members to serve and judge appeal cases. Unlike other Boards, the members are not traditionally administrative experts and have minimal professional or personal connections to each other or the issue of zoning. The design allows members to discuss and vote on cases in an almost jury-like way to represent the community and its needs, explained Board member Sarah Locke.
But, to nonprofessionals, understanding the details of zoning law can often be a challenge. Talbot, who became a staffer on zoning in New Haven after more than a decade of serving as a town planner in the nearby town of Wallingford, often provided the expertise in the room to guide board members through all of New Haven’s zoning ordinances. He was known by members of the BZA for his availability and willingness to explain and guide board members and community members through the specifics of any given case.
Though Locke said the BZA often deals with issues like parking, both Locke and Grotheer noted that decisions made by the Board are meant to respect and represent the less quantifiable aspects of development decisions and community planning.
“The Board is there to think about it from a human perspective, from a community perspective,” Locke said. It’s important to consider whether decisions “make sense for the community,” she added.
Under Talbot’s successor, the Board will continue to consider community impact in zoning as the city’s competing demands increase.
Zoning, and the direction of future changes to zoning laws in the Elm City, were among the topics raised by the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force at a public hearing last week. As New Haven seeks to balance its commitments to economic growth and affordable housing, questions of how zoning ought to be approached have become a critical component of the discussion on how to optimally shape the community.
At the Affordable Housing Task Force hearing saw its members present some of the recommendations that will likely appear in the final proposal that will be sent to the Board of Alders after a vote within the Task Force on Jan. 24. Though the 45-minute hearing touched on a variety of ways to combat issues in affordability, zoning seemed to be one of the pillar methods through which the Task Force will recommend the Board of Alders to take action.
At the hearing, City Plan Commissioner Ed Mattison stressed on the importance that zoning ordinances are written to serve New Haven’s urban population given limitations on the amount of land available in the city.
The ideas Mattison presented involved changing zoning laws to become more “inclusionary” — specifically, requiring developers to designate a given percentage of units in new or proposed developments as affordable. In describing the plan, he asked the city to call on outside professional expertise in inclusionary zoning to best design reform that will fit New Haven. Mattison did not immediately respond to the News’ request for comment.
Ward 8 Alder Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18, a non-voting facilitator of the Task Force, told the News that he anticipates that the full written report and recommendations will be published by the end of this week, to allow for public commentary and discussion before the Task Force’s upcoming vote.
The BZA’s next meeting is on Feb. 13.
Angela Xiao | firstname.lastname@example.org