By Alexis Harrison and Kathryn Braun
Dear Members of the Connecticut General Assembly:
Please vote NO on Substitute House Bill 6781, which would impose sweeping changes impairing most municipalities’ ability to plan, budget, prudently develop land and conserve natural resources. It shifts authority to the State officials who are guided by housing and development experts and advocates. The development mandates combined with extreme, unfunded administrative and budgetary burdens will jeopardize State and local conservation, environmental health, and climate change planning by placing housing development above all else.
FairPLAN is an environmental and good government group dedicated to preserving open space, protecting natural resources and neighborhoods, supporting positive government practices, and advocating for an effective balance of development versus conservation to promote long term economic and environmental health.
Below is a partial list of concerns, which may change as the bill evolves in the legislature. Due to the failure of the bill to provide enough detail to fully evaluate its practical impact, this is not an exhaustive list.
The Fair Share/TOD components cannot be fixed and should be removed from the bill in their entirety.
– Open Space preservation is deprioritized. Open space is already difficult to preserve due to cost, development pressure and availability of undeveloped land. This bill’s development mandates, lack of environmental input, extreme budgetary pressure and noncompliance penalties will further deprioritize and impair open space preservation. It also conflicts with State policy on open space preservation.
o The bill specifically targets undeveloped land by mandating that all municipalities conduct a “Review of the definition of buildable land and the elimination or reduction of requirements that limit its availability”
o The bill requires the Secretary of OPM to conduct a study of “any real property owned by the State, excluding real property reserved for conservation by the state to identify properties surplus to state needs and suitable for development...”
§ The Secretary is to consult with the Commissioner of Administrative Services and Transportation, but excludes the Commissioner of DEEP.
§ This deprioritizes open space that is NOT already preserved, and would impair the ability of the State to reach its longstanding goal of preserving 21% of all State land as open space
o The bill ignores the economic and environmental value to preserving undeveloped land. Open space provides for the cleansing and recharge of water, and development has an adverse impact on water quality. According to the State Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), “impervious cover, wastewater treatment outflows, stormwater drainage systems and over land flow are primary factors in the transport of pollutants to surface waters.” The CEQ has observed that water quality in our rivers, lakes and estuaries “shows little signs of improvement… to support aquatic life and recreation’. Unfortunately, the State’s acquisition of land to preserve is not meeting its goals. According to the CEQ’s 2021 report, “DEEP’s preservation efforts are not on track to reach the state’s preservation goal of 320,576 acres. At the average acquisition rate of 879 acres per year, it would take DEEP approximately 65 years to achieve the ten percent goal. As the cost of land increases, that goal will become more remote unless the rate of open space acquisition increases.”
o Towns and cities that cannot afford to spend upwards of $250,000 per unit to build hundreds or thousands of affordable units would rely on developers to build. But developers would only need to include 20% affordable so total new housing would have to be much greater than the quota. Towns that fail to satisfy the quota are subject to lawsuits filed by “any interested party”,and loss of funds.
§ Fairfield for example per the bill’s proponent, Open Communities Alliance’s own model on which the bill is based, must add 2,000 units at a cost of over $500 million. If Fairfield let developers to do the building, then it would have to accommodate 10,000 new housing units to get the 2,000 at 20% affordable, almost a 50% increase in total housing stock.
§ The costs do not include the cost of land, the administrative burden the bill imposes for new types of planning, reporting, and tracking, the infrastructure expansion that the added development would require, or the personnel and benefits costs for expanded staffing at Town hall and in the school system.
§ Modifying the quota does not solve the problem. Land is fixed in its locale and local conditions and constraints must be considered to make prudent land use decisions.
– The quota-model would have no input from environmental stakeholders and experts. The formula would be determined by the OPM Secretary consulting with the Commissioner of Housing, Economic and Community Development and “experts, advocates and organizations with expertise in affordable housing, fair housing and planning and zoning”. Excluded are the DEEP commissioner, CEQ, local conservation, wetlands, water and sewer officials, land trusts and open space and environmental experts and advocates.
– Town challenges to the quota would be heard and decided without environmental stakeholders or experts. The OPM Secretary would hear the Town’s case and decide in consultation with the Commissioners of Housing and Economic and Community Development and “experts, advocates and organizations with expertise in affordable housing, fair housing and planning and zoning”. Excluded are the DEEP commissioner, CEQ, local conservation, wetlands, water and sewer officials, land trusts and open space and environmental experts and advocates.
– The bill establishes a Round Table group to advise the legislature which excludes environmental stakeholders and experts. The group is called a “majority leaders roundtable group” on affordable housing tasked with studying and making recommendations to the General Assembly on, among other things, “the potential conversion of State properties into affordable housing developments”.
o The group includes: joint standing committee leaders having knowledge of “housing and planning and development”, the Senate and House majority leaders, 6 members appointed by the majority leaders described as: people with expertise in public housing, regional council of governments, business advocacy, regional planning, local planning and zoning, and housing development, The State Commissioners of Administrative Services, Housing, Economic & Community Development, Transportation, the OPM’s Responsible Growth Coordinator, Executive Director of CT Housing Finance Authority, a representative from the Conference of Municipalities, and the Council of Small Towns.
o Excluded are the DEEP commissioner, CEQ, local conservation, wetlands, water and sewer officials, land trusts and open space and environmental experts and advocates.
– The bill expands the power of the Office of Responsible Growth regarding the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) from ‘coordinating the administration’ of CEPA to ‘administering’ CEPA. This conflicts with CGS 22a-2d which mandates that the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) shall have “jurisdiction relating to the preservation and protection of the air, water and other natural resources of the state, energy and policy planning and regulation and advancement of telecommunications and related technology.”
o The bill also changes the focus of the Office of Responsible Growth which was created by Governor Rell in 2006, from an environmental mission, to a housing development mission. The first 2 clauses of Governor’s Executive Order #15 read as follows:
“WHEREAS, The State of Connecticut is defined by breathtaking landscapes that extend from the majestic shoreline to the rolling hills, vibrant cities, attractive suburbs, scenic small towns and picturesque farms; and
WHEREAS, We must actively steer the continued growth and development of our state to prevent sprawling development patterns from forever changing the character of our communities. If left unchecked, this trend will continue to fragment the landscape, impair our ability to remain economically competitive, consume precious natural resources, waste energy, pollute the air and water, increase Greenhouse Gases (GHG) that can accelerate the pace of climate change, and overwhelm local and state infrastructure; “
– The Bill requires “housing growth zones” be established without local zoning, conservation, wetlands, sewer or water review.
o This is the Transit Oriented Development component of the bill. But all input from local land use officials would be excluded. Instead, the Connecticut Municipal Redevelopment Authority must approve the zone if its likely to increase housing development, permits middle housing as of right, and projects would only require approval by a ZBA rather than a Zoning Commission and only 1 single hearing would be held with extremely short timeframe of 30 days after the application is filed and 30 days to render a decision, without any approval required by planning and zoning, sewer commission, water commission, wetlands agency, conservation commission or historic preservation commission.
§ This provision impairs the ability of towns to protect their natural and historic resources, and conflicts with State laws that authorize towns to establish historic, sewer and wetlands commissions to carry out important State policies.
– Wetlands are targeted for less protection. Towns must revise zoning regulations, and review wetlands regulations for ‘unnecessary requirements that exceed state law and add expense or delay.” This not only conflicts with State policy to preserve and protect wetlands, but it leaves it to non-environmental State officials to determine if the town complies.
o It is the public policy of the State to protect these vital resources. Wetlands serve many functions, including a unique ability to store and sequester carbon. Forested inland wetlands, which comprise most of the inland wetlands, serve as important carbon sinks and sequester carbon as organic matter within the forested system, both above and below ground.
o By State law, the DEEP Commissioner delegates to all municipalities the obligation to carry out the terms of the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Act. Municipal commissions are mandated to pass regulations to establish wetlands boundaries, develop procedures and administer and enforce the law. (CGS 22a-42a)
§ Commissioners hold public hearings and upon making a finding “that the proposed activity may have a significant impact on wetlands or watercourses, a permit shall not be issued unless the commissioner finds on the basis of the record that a feasible and prudent alternative does not exist.” (CGS 22a-41
– The bill shifts authority from the DEEP to the Dept. of Public Health to regulate community septic systems up to 10,000 gallons/day. At present, the State of Connecticut through DEEP regulates on-site septic systems. For septic systems up to 7,500 gallons per day of flow, DEEP delegates to the Department of Public Health, which delegates permitting and inspections to town health departments. DEEP must approve larger septic and more technical systems, and it has a more rigorous, site-specific process. This regulatory protocol should not be weakened.
o DEEP and DPH are understaffed with only a handful of sanitation engineers between them and hundreds of thousands of septic systems across the state. The State has been informed that there is a shortage of experienced local sanitation officials due to a ‘retirement surge’, and that there is inadequate coordination between state and local government.
o The bill specifically reduces the ability of Towns to require sewer connections in environmentally sensitive areas by requiring a ‘review of zoning regulations to ensure that middle housing is permitted without automatically requiring the availability of public sewer”
§ Middle housing on septic requires community septic. But when private entities are responsible for larger systems such as community septic systems, larger failures can occur from over use, misuse, and deferred maintenance, lack of oversight or accountability, leading to severe environmental harm.
o Rivers are impaired by development activity including failing septic systems, and this affects Long Island Sound. Water quality in the Sound is affected by population density and related impacts from human-sourced pollution flowing in from rivers, streams and ground water, excess nitrogen from sewers, septic systems, lawn applications and fossil fuels. According to Save the Sound’s 2020 report card of bays along the Long Island Sound, only 23 out of 53 bays are in good health, and 3 bays on the Connecticut side received a “D” rating for water quality (Wequetequock Cove near Mystic, Black Rock Harbor in Bridgeport, and Inner Norwalk Harbor).
– Climate Change impact and resiliency planning is not considered. The bill imposes extreme development mandates without considering local conditions and constraints. Climate change is ignored and the multitude of groups being formed by this bill exclude climate change experts. The DEEP has predicted that within the next 27 years sea level will rise by 20” and some climate authorities believe this needs to be updated as it could understate the level by twofold. Yet resiliency measures may well conflict with the development mandates of this bill. Coastal and flood prone towns are already seeking to acquire land to enhance natural floodplain, which conflicts with the development mandates of the bill. Portions of coastal towns that comprise much of the transit system will be inundated with flooding from even minor storms as climate change progresses.
Competing demands for the use of all our resources will continue to grow, and this is not the time to reduce environmental protections, yet that is exactly what this bill does by prioritizing development over all else. Not only does the bill shift land use decision making from Towns to the State, but it expressly targets and deprioritizes longstanding preservation and environmental protection policies related to open space, wetlands, sewers, water, and historic resources.
This bill if enacted, would jeopardize our State’s dedication to environmental health, good land use planning, natural resource protection, open space, historic and archeological preservation, and climate change planning.
Please consider the practical and environmental impacts of this bill. It is extremely broad and complex and conflicts with important environmental policies already in place in our State. The bill must not be enacted unless the portions pertaining to fair share and TOD are removed.
Kathryn Braun – Fairfield
Alexis Harrison – Fairfield
Braun and Harrison are members of Fairfield Town Plan & Zoning Commission and are also founding members of Fairfielders Protecting Land & Neighborhoods. They do not speak for the Fairfield TPZ but as private citizens.