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At Hearing-Open Space RulesDraw Fire



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At Hearing—

Open Space Rules

Draw Fire

By Andrew Gorosko

Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) members are reviewing a range of criticism that has been leveled at their proposal known as the “open space conservation subdivision (OSCS),” a regulatory mechanism intended to maximize the amount of undeveloped land that would be preserved in certain future residential subdivisions.

The P&Z held a public hearing on the OSCS proposal on March 18, prompting criticism of the measure from some land developers and their agents.

P&Z Chairman William O’Neil explained that the proposed development rules would require single-family homes to be built closer together on a site in order to preserve a proportionally larger amount of undeveloped open space land. OSCS development would provide an alternative design approach to the conventional residential subdivision, in which single-family houses are widely spaced on relatively large lots.

Unlike some other towns, Newtown’s OSCS proposal would not provide a “density bonus” to developers. In effect, the maximum number of homes that could be constructed on a site under the conventional subdivision rules would also be the maximum number of houses that could be built on that site under an OSCS plan. The proposed regulations thus would not provide developers with a financial incentive by allowing them to build more dwellings on a site than would be allowed on a parcel under conventional subdivision rules.

The P&Z’s rationale for the OSCS proposal is to limit suburban sprawl during a time of continuing residential growth. The proposed rules seek to preserve the remaining local rural character.

The OSCS rules would give the P&Z a regulatory basis to evaluate, on a case-by-case basis, whether a project should be developed as an OSCS subdivision, or as a conventional subdivision. The intent of the proposed rules is the permanent preservation of open space, agricultural land, forestry land, wildlife habitat, aquifers, bodies of water, wetlands, scenic vistas, historic features, and archaeological resources.

Through the regulatory initiative, comprised of 18 pages of proposed rules, the P&Z seeks to set aside up to 50 percent of certain future residential subdivisions as preserved, undeveloped open space. Currently, typically between ten percent and 15 percent of the land in residential subdivisions is preserved as open space.

The P&Z sets the preservation of 50 percent of a site as open space as a guideline in gauging OSCS applications. Under the proposal, a minimum of 15 percent of the site would be set aside as open space.

Developer’s View

Larry Edwards is an engineer and developer who has submitted construction applications to the P&Z since the 1970s.

At the March 18 public hearing, Mr Edwards said, “I have some serious concerns about what this commission is trying to do.” Mr Edwards questioned the P&Z’s regulatory approach in submitting the proposed OSCS rules.

For decades, local residential development has been geared toward providing enough land to allow sufficient area for domestic water wells and septic waste disposal systems for individual dwellings, he said.

The OSCS rules would run counter to past development practices by “densifying” development, Mr Edwards said. The proposed rules would allow house lots to be as small as one-quarter acre, he said. Such development could result in high wastewater-effluent levels in the soil, as well as the depletion of the subsurface water table, he said. The OSCS development scheme proposed by the P&Z could result in environmental pollution problems, Mr Edwards said.

Noting that some new local homes now exceed $1 million in sale value, Mr Edwards said residents like to own land adjacent to their home. He asked whether homes worth more than $1 million would be constructed on small lots. OSCS development would have a negative effect on the town’s property tax revenue, Mr Edwards said.

The open space land preserved in OSCS subdivisions would not be “open” to the general public, he said. An OSCS development approach could encourage the creation of “affordable housing,” he added.

Mr Edwards urged that the town health department review and comment on the proposed OSCS rules. Some large-scale septic systems, also known as community septic systems, which have been used elsewhere for cluster housing complexes, have caused pollution problems, he said.

Wastewater disposal is a central issue in the design of OSCS development. The proposed regulations address the use of large-scale septic systems that would be used by multiple dwellings. Under the proposed rules, if a subdivision were to use a large-scale septic system, an association of property owners would be created to operate and maintain that system.

Mr Edwards objected to the proposed rules that would require developers to submit to the P&Z generalized plans for both an OSCS subdivision and conventional subdivision in order to allow the P&Z to decide which design approach should be used on a given site. In other towns, a developer is given the choice of which development approach to use, Mr Edwards said.

Questions Posed

Local builder and developer Kim Danziger said he favors the concept of maximizing the open space preserved in residential subdivisions, but raised concerns about the specific OSCS rules proposed by the P&Z.

Mr Danziger questioned the P&Z’s authority to decide whether a given parcel should be developed as an OSCS subdivision or as a conventional subdivision.

Under the proposed OSCS rules, the applicant for any subdivision involving 20 acres or more of land, or eight or more building lots, which is located in a R-1, R-2, or R-3 zone, would submit an OSCS application to the commission for its review. Also, smaller parcels, or parcels involving less than eight building lots, may be eligible to apply for OSCS status, if the open space land to be preserved is adjacent to existing preserved open space, or if one or more significant or unique natural features would be preserved on the site.

Mr Danziger said he expects that the proposed OSCS regulations would be appealed in Superior Court.

Attorney James Mannion, representing Mr Danziger, questioned the P&Z’s authority to require developers to submit two versions of a subdivision design for P&Z review. “I think it’s improper under the law” to allow the P&Z to decide which development approach should be used on a given site, Mr Mannion said. Mr Mannion also raised questions about the clarity of the proposed rules.

“There is very little incentive” for developers to pursue OSCS subdivisions, he said. Undergoing such a development review process would be “very expensive,” he said.

Under the proposed rules, the P&Z could hire technical experts to review development plans with the cost for such experts assumed by the developer.

Lack of Incentives

In a March 18 letter to the P&Z, attorney Robert Hall expressed his views. Mr Hall, who often represents developers who have applications pending before local land use agencies, explained that he made his comments as a private citizen.

The OSCS proposal provides no financial incentive to developers, he wrote. Not all parcels contain physical features that would be desirable to preserve, Mr Hall added. People are unwilling to pay as much money for a one-third acre lot as they would pay for a two-acre lot, he said.

The proposed regulations would prove “counterproductive,” he wrote. One-acre building lots would be too small to accommodate the size of the homes that are now being built locally, he added.

Mr Hall suggested that the P&Z promulgate such regulations as an “alternative” to a conventional subdivision, and also create a mechanism to allow a town land use official to review development proposals before those proposals are submitted to the P&Z.

At the March 18 public hearing, resident Steven Uhde of 87 Great Ring Road, who said he has been a local resident for more than 30 years, expressed his desire for residential growth to consist of  “big houses on big lots” rather than as tightly built development. People move to Newtown because they want to have a yard, he said. “How much open space do we need?” he asked.

Mr Uhde said he would prefer to have open space exist in the form of a public park, which the town has bought or received as a gift.

Resident Martha Wright of 13 Tamarack Road noted that much of the undeveloped land remaining in town is of marginal quality. Developing such property could pose septic system problems, she said.

Ms Wright suggested that town agencies conduct a “consolidated review” of OSCS development applications as a way to hold down costs. Ms Wright is a former town sanitarian.


In response to the public comments, Mr O’Neil said P&Z members would discuss the OSCS proposal with the town’s land use attorney and town staff members.

Whether the P&Z conducts another public hearing on the OSCS proposal would depend on the extent to which the P&Z alters its OSCS proposal, he said.

P&Z members are slated to meet at 2 pm on April 15 at the town land use office in Canaan House at Fairfield Hills to discuss their OSCS proposal.

During the past 20 years, approximately 14,000 acres of vacant land, representing 36 percent of the town’s total land area, were developed as residential subdivisions. The community character of areas that were developed changed from “rural” to “suburban,” and the natural landscape and ecosystems of those areas significantly changed due to the grading of 2,700 house lots and the construction of miles of subdivision roads and stormwater drainage facilities.

The OSCS approach would allow large amounts of open space to be preserved at no cost to the town. The amount of land preserved would represent more acreage than the town likely would have the financial means to acquire.

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