Last Green Valley sponsors academy for local commissioners

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Regional - posted Mon., Feb. 18, 2013
Attorney Richard Roberts spoke about legal procedures and responsibilities of land use commissions. Photo by D. Coffey.
Attorney Richard Roberts spoke about legal procedures and responsibilities of land use commissions. Photo by D. Coffey.

Land Use Academy Director Bruce Hyde used a game show-style strategy to make his Feb. 16 workshop lively. Participants used clickers to answer multiple-choice questions at the start of the session. The questions covered information that land use commissioners have to deal with on a regular basis. The topics were wide-ranging and complicated, including buffer zones, variances, subdivision requirements and activities permitted “as of right.” The answers were telling, as much for what the participants didn't know as for what they did.

The Academy is a program of the University of Connecticut Center for Land Use Education and Research (CLEAR). It's recognized as the state’s official certification program in basic land use education for local commissioners. On Feb. 16, commissioners from the towns located in the “Last Green Valley” were invited to the day-long session at the Northeastern Connecticut Council of Governments in Dayville. TLGV Deputy Executive Director Lois Bruinooge said the program was important for municipal officials on a variety of levels. “It's complicated,” she said. “The regulatory scheme is not easy to jump into. It's a good way to get volunteers basic training at the municipal board level.”

Dennis Latchum, who is on Lebanon's Inland Wetland Commission, was in attendance. “I'm real concerned about developing my expertise so I can be effective in my role,” he said. “If you don't have the background, how do you make the best decisions? That is exactly why I'm here.” Latchum has been on the commission for three years. He has taken seminars, attended conferences and has done a lot of reading. “It's really hard,” he said. “Everyone in Lebanon is a volunteer.”

Most of the towns in the area have commissions made up of volunteers. While some may have backgrounds in conservation, wetlands and watercourses, planning and zoning, or appeals boards, many do not. The Land Use Academy tries to provide a basic understanding of the legal issues commissioners may face, the roles and responsibilities of the different land use commissions, and basic information such as how to conduct meetings.
“Local land use commissioners have an incredibly difficult job,” Hyde said. “They have to make tough decisions and they don't get paid for their time. The decisions they make are ones that can impact how a community grows and what it will look like in 20, 25, or 50 years. They have enormous responsibility from a stewardship point of view.”

The course provided an overview on the connections between the various commissions and how decisions made by one board could impact the work of another. Attorney Richard Roberts gave a primer on the legal responsibilities of Connecticut land use boards. “There is some black and white, but a lot of gray,” he said. The questions he raised about state definitions of wetlands, environmental impacts, and exceptions to regulations illustrated just how complicated a commissioner's decisions can be. Challenges to a board's decision are often successful due to procedural defects, not because board members made bad decisions, he said. If a member didn't recuse himself, if a deadline wasn't met, or a notice wasn't published in the paper, an appeal can be granted.

“One of the things we try to impress on people is whether you've been appointed or volunteered, you need to know your responsibilities and what to take into consideration when you are making decisions,” Hyde said. “If you are sitting on a zoning board of appeals, you really should know what the zoning commission does and what the planning commission does,” Hyde said. “People need to understand how what they do fits into the overall strategy for a community.”

What Latchum has learned in three years is that wetlands and vernal pools provide essential natural resources for the community. “Most people aren't aware of the importance of wetlands,” he said. “In my opinion, the regulations don't reflect the importance of vernal pools. They are really important. We're trying to do something about that.”

It's been quite the educational experience for Latchum. He went from an industrial background doing process control for a chemical company to serving on the inland wetland commission. He's gotten involved in a rapid bio-assessment citizen science project on Pease Brook. “It's been fun,” he said.

“You could spend a million years trying to learn things,” said Latchum. “That's not fair to the people, the town or the other commissioners.”

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