Local commissioners attend land use academy
By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Regional - posted Mon., Feb. 18, 2013
With a population of less than 10,000 and the second-largest land mass for a Connecticut town, Woodstock is the quintessential Quiet Corner community. Picturesque and with more working dairy farms than any other town in the state, open space conservation, land preservation and agricultural viability are crucial concerns to its residents.
Woodstock is similar to many of the towns that line the National Heritage Corridor known as The Last Green Valley. While residents grapple with maintaining a balance between growth and development, and natural resource conservation, some of the issues facing Woodstock face the other 35 towns in TLGV. The challenges facing members of town zoning, planning, conservation, wetlands, inland waterways and appeals commissions are similar as well.
On Feb. 16, TLGV sponsored a Land Use Academy for commission members from those towns. The Academy is a program of the University of Connecticut Center for Land Use Education and Research. It's recognized as the state’s official certification program in basic land use education for local commissioners. The day-long session provides 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.
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 helpful to have a little background on the different boards, legal responsibilities, how to plan and how to read a map. It's a good way to get volunteers basic training at the municipal board level.”
Jim Kaeding, from the Woodstock Conservation Commission, was in attendance. A commission member for two years, he recently took on chairperson responsibilities. Like most local commissioners, Kaeding is a volunteer. While some volunteers have backgrounds in conservation, wetlands, planning and zoning, many do not. The Land Use Academy tries to bridge that gap.
Part of the responsibilities of conservation commissions is to index a town's open areas. “We have a fair amount of open space in Woodstock,” Kaeding said. “We're trying to get a handle on land use and private easements. We don't have a good catalog or inventory of that, and that's one of our jobs.”
Besides cataloging open areas, marshlands, and other wetlands, conservation commissions are charged with researching utilization of land areas, keeping records of its meetings and activities, and compiling an annual report. A fact sheet on the roles and responsibilities of conservation commission members was included in the Academy information packets. So too were fact sheets on planning and zoning commissions, the zoning board of appeals, and inland wetlands commissions. That information is a crucial first step that volunteer commissioners should know, according to Academy Director Bruce Hyde.
“If you're 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.”
Local land use commissioners have an incredibly difficult job, according to Hyde. “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,” he said. “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.
Attorney Richard Roberts gave a primer on the legal responsibilities of land use boards. 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.
“I think a lot of people come to Woodstock because of the beauty of the place,” said Kaeding. “We want to make sure that's preserved. We want to make sure people in town know about town land set aside for conservation so they can appreciate it and use it appropriately.”