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A Fresh Look At Smart Growth In Newtown



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A Fresh Look At Smart Growth In Newtown

By Kendra Bobowick

Smart Growth can have a lot of meanings, said Conservation Commission Chairman Mary Gaudet-Wilson. Regarding residential development and subdivisions, she said, “It’s about saving the open spaces.”

A recent seminar explored concepts familiar to town staff and various commission volunteers: low impact development, and open space conservation subdivisions. And, in an effort to “accommodate some of these things,” Ms Gaudet-Wilson said, “I am trying to get officials to look at the regulations and see if they can be improved.”

She said, “I would like to see changes in regulations that accommodate some of these things.” Hoping to reopen the discussion, she said, “People are talking about it again.”

Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Lilla Dean — who attended the recent seminar, said, “These are the early days yet.” As far as zoning regulations, she said, “We need to get a lot of groundwork done on this. A lot of people need to be included. I think these are things we should be looking at.”

Both Ms Dean and Ms Gaudet-Wilson noted that conservation subdivision regulations already exists. Ms Dean explained, “We have conservation subdivision regulations on the books, but no one applies under them.”

Land Use Deputy Director Rob Sibley explained, “Typically, the alternative municipal open space subdivision regulation will give a bonus for the developer in exchange for more open space.”

But the alternative subdivision bonuses are less the rule than the exception. He said, “Our current alternative regulations don’t seem to be enticing any developers.”

 Considering the situation from another perspective, he added, “That said, the current thinking is not to have separate regulations for subdivisions, but to make all subdivisions require low impact development. Currently, low impact development has been used voluntarily in subdivisions over the last few years and the techniques have proven successful. We also allow for extra open space to be set aside with no penalty.”

Low impact methods can be part of a development’s regulations, but are a separate concept. Mr Sibley said, “Low impact development has been at the forefront of the land use agency for over six years,” in the form of pervious paving — surfaces that allow rainwater drainage rather than runoff — alternate stormwater controls, alternative curb design, site location design, etc. Naming other low impact methods, which are less regulation and more “day-to-day,” approaches, he named other means of reducing effects on the environment: stormwater treatment, rain gardens, and bioswales, for instance.

Considering whether Newtown could better accommodate some of these environmentally responsible approaches, he said, “It’s partially about the education curve in which the developers learn about the benefits from these techniques.” He suggested, “Requiring these techniques as the minimum standards would address a majority of the issue. P&Z can adopt the regulations at any time.” During a separate phone call, Mr Sibley explained, “There are two things: zoning is one and planning is another. Already there are open specification conservation subdivisions — it’s on the books and incentive driven, but has little to do with low impact development.”

Offering a “shining example,” he noted the redevelopment of the former Grand Union site on Church Hill Road and Queen Street. What was once 90 percent impervious surfaces has been reduced to 70 percent, providing less flooding and better water quality, he said. The techniques used are “zoning characteristics, and no regulations need to be changed.”

Because every site is unique, “it’s hard to make [techniques] requirements. On one site it may work, but on another it may not.”

He also mentioned other aspects of building that fall under low impact development, but may not necessarily be appropriate as regulations, such as alternative heating, natural landscaping, and road drainage, which falls under the highway department’s purview.

Noting Ms Gaudet-Wilson’s desire to raise the conversation, he said, “It’s a good time to look at the regulations and see what’s in place. It is good to energize commissions to move in a direction to improve quality of life in Newtown — they may be picking up that gauntlet.”

Regarding the recent seminar addressing smart growth, Mr Sibley said he feels that the Conservation Commission “took the resources available to them and made [concepts] known to Newtown – reinvigorating the conversation.”

Land Use Director George Benson also noted that “in all our applications we try to get the developer to go with conservation measures.” Environmental issues are handled on a case-by-case basis, he said.

Looking in another direction, he mentioned, “We’re trying for different housing availability, but having a push-back on that, such as Fairfield Hills.”

Mention of an apartment house on the former state hospital site has spurred outspoken opposition in many cases. But apartments fit with smart growth, Mr Benson said. “Part of smart growth is to grow into a viable community – it’s a problem in Connecticut – there isn’t anywhere for young people to afford.” Part of becoming a viable community is “to keep a variety of people in town.”

Mentioning the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, he noted that the document guides “how we build as we build.” As the document is revised, he said, “We’re trying to make it a better resource.” He referred to the plan as “our overview for the town.” He said the plan is “not a regulation” but a look at “what we want to see.”

To view the town’s plan of conservation and development visit Newtown-ct.gov/Public_Documents/NewtownCT_POCD/toc.

Sponsored by the Conservation Commission, a recent May 14 seminar on smart growth took place at the Newtown Municipal Center Speakers included MaryAnn Nussom-Haverstock, Environmental Analyst, Planning and Standards Division at the Department of Environmental Protection, Martin Connor, City Planner for the city of Torrington, and Jay Keillor, president of Land Engineering Associates in Monroe.

Speakers explored creative ways to accommodate growth while preserving natural resources and minimizing impacts on natural systems.

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