A new state plan for Connecticut’s development policies is looking to shift focus back toward regional planning in an effort to promote smart growth.

“The Draft Conservation and Development Policies Plan for Connecticut, 2004-2009,” outlines the state’s development, resource management and public investment policies. The draft plan identifies trends and issues confronting the state in the years ahead, and must be updated every five years.

In Connecticut, a policy plan typically is drafted in such five-year cycles to create guidelines for the state and its municipalities to follow. But having remained basically the same for more than two decades, the Nutmeg State’s plan now has undergone a major rewrite.

The draft plan introduces six growth management principles that serve as the basis for the plan’s chapters. The growth management principles and associated policy recommendations are intended to better integrate state planning functions across agency lines, as well as to provide a more prescriptive advisory tool for municipalities and regional planning organizations when they revise their own plans.

According to a statement issued by the Connecticut Transportation Strategy Board, the state has a vision of remaining one of the country’s more dynamic and attractive areas “characterized by a robust economy, strong linkages to regional and global economies, pristine shoreline and rural areas, stimulating urban centers, valued educational institutions, a hotbed for technology, bioscience and other critical industry clusters and employment opportunities to enable all of its residents to pursue their dreams.”

The authors of the draft plan used that statement as a guideline in forming their principles. Among the key contributors to the plan was W. David LeVasseur, undersecretary of the Intergovernmental Policy Division of the state Office of Policy and Management.

Under Connecticut’s “home rule” system of government, each municipality has the autonomy to regulate local land use in a manner that is both fiscally and environmentally responsive to its residents’ needs and desires. To a certain degree, municipal land use decisions can be influenced by state infrastructure plans and capital investments in transportation facilities, public water supply and sewer lines, sewage treatment plant upgrades and property acquisitions for open space and other restricted development purposes.

A Global Context

Asked about the key differences of the current plan vs. the older version, LeVasseur said, “Actually, the entire format is different. In the past, the plan has been broken down into areas of housing, economic development, transportation and conversation. But this time we were trying to embrace a new a way of looking at conservation and development, and that’s in the parameters of smart growth.

“Accordingly, we reorganized the plan so it’s centered around six growth management principles, and each one of those principles has an impact in a number of different areas.”

Growth management principle No. 1 is “Redevelop and Revitalize Regional Centers and Areas With Existing or Currently Planned Physical Infrastructure,” No. 2 is “Expand Housing Opportunities and Design Choices to Accommodate a Variety of Household Types and Needs” and No. 3 is “Concentrate Development Around Transportation Nodes and Along Major Transportation Corridors to Support the Viability of Transportation Options.”

Principle No. 4 is “Conserve and Restore the Natural Environment, Cultural and Historical Resources and Traditional Rural Lands,” No. 5 is “Protect and Ensure the Integrity of Environmental Assets Critical to Public Health and Safety” and No. 6 is “Promote Integrated Planning Across All Levels of Government to Address Issues on a Statewide, Regional and Local Basis”

LeVasseur said the game plan is to get people thinking in a more global context when looking at land-use planning.

“This was a major rewrite for us. The existing format had been around since 1979, and this is the first major rewrite,” he said.

He also stressed that the draft plan was written in an easy-to-read format. “We wanted to get away from more land-use jargon and make it more understandable for lay folks and people who are not planners,” said LeVasseur.

The change in the plan was due to a number of reports that came to light during the past year. Several groups at the state level were simultaneously looking at smart-growth principles. LeVasseur had requested an extension on the plan in order to take advantage of all the reports being received.

“This plan should really serve as a skeleton,” he said. “Under the current state plan it’s more advisory, and the one area where there are really any governing principles is with state agencies dealing with specific projects. It’s our game plan and hope that both regionally and at the local level these principles will be implemented and will come about so that we have a comprehensive planning formula out there. It’s up to the RPOs and local governments to add muscle and organs and sinews to make the plan a complete corpus.”

Regional public hearings will be conducted throughout the state prior to the plan’s submittal for legislative approval. Although the plan strives to achieve a high degree of consistency with municipal and regional plans of conservation and development and local zoning regulations, only state agency actions are required to be consistent with the plan. Municipalities and RPOs must consider the plan and note any inconsistencies when they update their own plans, but they are not required to reconcile any differences.

That lack of absolute consistency is due in part to the different natures of state, regional and municipal plans. For example, municipal and regional plans and local zoning regulations generally reflect existing and future land uses, while the plan serves as a policies guide for prioritizing state investments and for coordinating state agency planning. The plan is not a compilation of existing and future land uses; instead, it is recognition of the reciprocal role of municipalities and RPOs in ensuring that land-use decisions generate the maximum return on state infrastructure investments.

“I think if there’s a central focus, it’s to focus economic and redevelopment in areas where infrastructure already exists and is maybe underutilized. I come from a rural smaller town and as a selectman, if I wanted to get into the economic development game, I not only had to lure business out there but I had to provide economic incentives and might even have to replicate a form on infrastructure like there they came from. But that way, any tax benefit was already eroded by the public works projects,” said LeVasseur.

So while some expansion may be required to foster growth, the basic concept of the draft plan is to keep industry and economic development in places where there is already the infrastructure to support it. So rather than sprawl all over the state, development will be focused on areas that can utilize what they already have.

“We want to see areas trying to take more advantage of transportation and helping move people, goods and services from point to point. It’s obviously no surprise that we in New England have issues with transportation,” he said.

Another focus of the plan is to bring back regional decision-making. Connecticut hasn’t had county government since the 1960s.

“The problem with that is there isn’t a governance level to encourage municipalities to work together toward common goals,” he said. “One of the keys of this whole thing is that there needs to be a regional approach taken to transportation and economic development.”

LeVasseur said that there may need to be a “re-visioning” of how tax revenues are shared regionally.

“With 169 towns, does it make sense to have 169 public works departments, or 150 school districts?” he said.

Regarding a timeline, LeVasseur said the draft plan is going through a series of public hearings now through February, and it will be submitted to a legislative committee in March. The committee will then have 35 days to comment and present it to the General Assembly, where it can be adopted before the end of the session in early May.

“Hopefully, we’ll have the hearings complete by the first week in February so we stay on schedule,” he said.