Senate Proposal Eliminating Subdivision Hearings Draws Local Opposition

Three Newtown residents are among the latest to add their signatures and support in opposition to Connecticut Senate Bill 405.

Former Newtown Wetlands Enforcement officer Ann Asterita along with Newtown Forest Association officers Guy Peterson and Robert Eckenrode have joined dozens of other individuals, municipalities, forest, land trust, and environmental groups standing against the proposal.

According to the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters (CTLCV) the bill would eliminate the ability of a planning commission to conduct public hearings on subdivisions to determine whether they comply with applicable law and regulations.

The CTLCV and its supporters argue that the purpose of a public hearing is precisely so the public can provide input as to whether and to what extent such regulations may or may not be violated. As a result, the opponents are asking residents to consider contacting their state lawmakers to oppose SB 405.

“Public participation is an integral part of Connecticut’s land use process and serves to protect the public trust in the air, land, water and natural resources of the state,” the CTLCV opposition message states. “If this bill passes, it could lead to the approval of projects that would damage the environment and threaten our drinking water supplies. This is harmful to the environment and to rights of public participation and due process in Connecticut.”

League Executive Director Lori Brown helped write the opposition memo, which she said has since “gone viral” among the hundreds of state environmental groups and supporters. She noted the land use process in Connecticut is critical to protecting natural resources. She explained the public process the bill would eliminate is a vehicle by which those who know the resources best can comment on a subdivision’s impact on those resources.

“Public participation in the land use process in general (including planning, zoning and wetlands) has led to the preservation of some of Connecticut’s great places,” the opposition memo continues. “Most recently intervention in local land use processes led to the preservation of, and option to purchase, the 1,000-acre forest known as the Preserve in Old Saybrook. Limiting public participation could severely impact the landscape and quality of life in Connecticut and threaten the environment and public health.”

Local Opposition

Mr Eckenrode responded quickly with written opposition when he learned about the bill.

“I oppose this bill for the simple fact that public oversight rather than limiting development’s options ensures that the best possible plan is the end result,” Mr Eckenrode wrote. “I am president of the Newtown Forest Association and Newtown’s largest private property owner with permanently protected open space. I am also a residential home designer and value well planned home building and environmentally responsible site planning and construction.”

Mr Eckenrode later told The Bee that he understands and has participated in the opportunity to insist town officials consider public input as a necessary voice in overseeing the approval of developments that will impact natural resources in Newtown as well as in communities across the state.

“Large commercial and residential developments do impact the community beyond just increasing a town’s tax base,” he said. “With proper oversight of officials coupled with input from interested parties including neighbors and local lands trusts, towns are then able to make the most informed decision and approve the best plan possible for a proposed development.”

He added that SB 405 “essentially eliminates the opportunity of public oversight and welcomes back old school back room decisions without a public recourse.”

Ms Asterita, an environmental consultant, said she has seen the benefit public participation in the subdivision process can make.

“People have a right to know and comment on subdivisions that will effect their neighborhoods and communities,” she said. “Many people and their experts provide invaluable insight into the environmental [and other] aspects of a plan that the applicant may not have considered. These insights can then be addressed through modification or negotiation. SB405 should be opposed.”

Mr Peterson simply said it is a bad bill.

"The ability to convene public hearings is a good check and balance and helps ensure the citizens have the ability to make sure certain matters that are subjective (not black and white) have their opinions heard before our government makes a decision that could often be irreversible," he said.

One Supporter’s Perspective

The Home Builders & Remodelers Association (HBRA) of Connecticut, Inc is supporting the bill, saying in a resource document obtained by The Bee that SB 405 addresses only the unnecessary hearings held to make the purely administrative decision on whether a subdivision application complies with the subdivision regulations.

According to the HBRA memo, “given the mandate to approve (or deny) an application if it does (or does not) comply with subdivision regulations, public hearings are fruitless and should not be discretionary. The public does not know the subdivision regulations better than the planning commissions that write them.”

The memo adds: “These hearings waste both substantial time and resources for all involved, including the municipality, and set up the public for frustration and failure.”

Ms Brown said League members met with state Office of Policy and Management officials as well as aides to Governor Dannel Malloy on April 16 to review concerns about the bill.

“I believe we made a pretty good case,” Ms Brown told The Newtown Bee following the meeting. “My concern is to kill this action sooner than later, on the chance that it could become part of the negotiating leverage [exerted] in the final hours of the legislative session.”

Ms Brown and other opponents believe that Gov Malloy’s public opposition to the proposal would go far toward eliminating it from play in the current session.

“If the governor’s office and OPM are against it, they have some influence on how it progresses or doesn’t,” she said. “If the governor opposed it, clearly that would make a difference.”

The League executive said that opposition to SB 405 is growing literally by the minute as more and more concerned citizens across the state begin learning about the proposal.

She also mentioned a recent amendment to the bill proposed by Senator Len Fasano, who represents Durham, East Haven, North Haven and Wallingford, which she said would still significantly restrict the types of public comments that can influence local agencies regulating subdivision developments.

“We need to summarily kill this thing,” Ms Brown said. “It takes the people who are most affected by these developments out of the [planning] process.”

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