TLGV sponsors land use academy for local commissioners

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Regional - posted Mon., Feb. 18, 2013
Land Use Academy Director Bruce Hyde presented a day-long workshop to municipal commission members. Photo by D. Coffey.
Land Use Academy Director Bruce Hyde presented a day-long workshop to municipal commission members. 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, and included 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 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 with two feet. It's helpful to have a little background on the different boards, legal responsibilities, how to plan and how to read a map. Certainly some people come at this with a professional background, but others don't. It's a good way to get volunteers basic training at the municipal board level.”

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.

Commission members from Killingly, Union, Lebanon and Woodstock attended the day-long session.

Killingly Conservation Commission member Sharon Fekete was particularly interested in learning about open space issues. “We're trying to establish 21 percent open space in town, which goes along with the recommendation of the state,” she said. According to the KCC website, the town currently has between a 6- and 8-percent open space inventory in town. It also has one of the largest populations in northeastern Connecticut. Open space issues are crucial to the town's development, she said.

It's incumbent on every commission to work within its town's Plan of Conservation and Development. Balancing economic growth with conservation of natural resources and safeguarding the character of a town can be difficult. It can also be contentious.

“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.” Knowledge can go a long way towards clarifying positions and handling disputes. Disagreements are something else altogether. But disagreements can at least be civil when conducted in the framework of a proper meeting.

“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.

“You could be there a million years trying to learn things,” said Dennis Latchum, a member of the Lebanon Inland Wetlands Commission. “That's not fair to the people, the town or the other commissioners.”

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