M. JODI RELL – ‘Reaching out to towns’

Affordable-housing and development experts are greeting last week’s executive order, which aims to stop sprawl across Connecticut, with a mixture of enthusiasm and uncertainty.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s order establishes an Office of Responsible Growth to “coordinate state initiatives to control rampant, ill-conceived development that threatens Connecticut’s special character.” It includes goals of expanding housing opportunities, reviewing transportation policies and identifying and creating a comprehensive list of the incentives and support available to developers from various state agencies.

“Obviously, the details have yet to be worked out,” said David Fink, policy and communications director for the Partnership for Strong Communities, a Hartford-based group that advocates to end homelessness and develop affordable housing. “In principle, the governor’s on exactly the right track.”

One of the most significant parts of the plan is that it will establish an Interagency Steering Council, according to Dave LeVasseur, undersecretary of intergovernmental policy in the state Office of Policy and Management.

The council will be made up of commissioners and executive directors of state agencies that have an impact on land-use decisions.

The other key points of Rell’s plan are to support an “expanding workforce” with housing that provides access to public transportation; to create roundtables across the state that will involve city and town officials and “foster the development of planning agendas tailored to the specific needs of different parts of Connecticut, starting with new transit corridors”; to develop support and incentives for communities to engage in regional planning; and to update the state’s “Green Plan” by next June to better identify sensitive ecological areas and unique features.

Some housing experts are withholding their opinions until the governor nails down more details.

“We have to wait and see if it’s politicking or if it’s real,” said Bill Ethier, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Connecticut. “If it’s real, what does it mean?”

Builders and developers long have complained about the high cost and long amount of time it takes to get a permit in many of the state’s municipalities. The added cost is passed down to the consumer, and it makes affordable housing difficult to build, said Barry Rosa, new-homes and land director at Prudential Connecticut Realty.

Fink said he hopes the smart-growth focus of the executive order will make way for more affordable housing by encouraging denser development. Developing in city and town centers, where there is existing infrastructure, saves money for both the municipality and the developer, and allowing more units per acre helps spread out the cost over many households.

“For the creation of housing that’s affordable Â… the idea of smart growth can significantly reduce costs,” Fink said.

A review of the permitting process will be part of the actions that result from the executive order, LeVasseur said, but the governor stressed that home rule and local autonomy will be maintained.

“Our efforts to better steer growth and development must be respectful of the Connecticut tradition of home rule and local autonomy by including municipal officials as full partners in this initiative,” Rell said in a prepared statement. “This is not statewide zoning. These are not more unfunded mandates. We aim to generate more informed decision-making at all levels of government, and to accomplish that we will work with municipal officials and regional agencies as full partners. This is about reaching out to towns and helping them realize their vision for what they want to look like 20, 40, 60 years from now.”

‘A Lasting Legacy’

The roundtables will aim to get the municipalities on board, LeVasseur said, but he acknowledged that it will be a challenge to convince city and town officials, who long have been used to determining where and how new projects are to be built in their towns, to work with the state and involve themselves more in regional planning.

“We envision not using mandates, but incentives,” LeVasseur said.

There is a disconnect between land boards and entities that want development, he said.

“They’re not reading off the same sheet of music,” LeVasseur said.

How the governor’s plan plays out will depend on the individuals who carry it out and who run the new office, and what the Legislature will do in the next session, Ethier said. But the plan raised more questions than opinions at the Home Builders Association.

One comment by the governor, in particular, prompted some questions.

“Think about the times we have shaken our heads in disbelief at the sight of another beautiful green field or hillside torn apart while nearby land well-suited for development goes unused,” she said in a prepared statement. “My order aims to prevent sprawling development patterns from forever changing the character of our communities.”

But since Connecticut is a state with relatively little developable land, Ethier said he is not sure where that “nearby land well-suited for development” might be.

“Where is that land?” he said.

But whether development goes on in town centers or in rural areas, there is almost always a sense of “not in my backyard.”

“We find opposition anywhere we go,” Ethier said.

According to Dennis Schain, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, there are definite examples around the state of green fields or ecologically valuable land being used for development. The “nearby land well-suited for development” might be along a highway corridor, in a city or urban ring, or a town center, Schain said. But he emphasized that the plan is not to mandate where development can occur, since it is not always possible to use land in urban areas, but to have more thoughtful plans for development. Although there is much land in city and town centers available for redevelopment, the executive order does not prohibit development in rural areas.

“Part of the overall thrust is to try to grow strategically,” Schain said. “Sprawl [by definition] isn’t anything built in the country that [people] don’t like Â… it’s not about preventing growth and development.”

The hope is to identify ecologically valuable and scenic land, and try to find alternatives to developing it.

“So much of the appeal of Connecticut is about what a beautiful place it is,” Schain said. “Once the beauty is gone, you can’t get it back.”

Rell cited statistics from the University of Connecticut Center for Land Use Education and Research that indicate: Between 1985 and 2002, the state added 119 square miles of developed land; that the percentage of Connecticut that is impervious surface – such as concrete, asphalt or rooftops – increased by 22 percent during that period; and that the state lost an average of 18 acres of forest per day in that timeframe.

“These statistics should be alarming to every Connecticut resident,” Rell said in a prepared statement. “The time has come to act with vision today so we can preserve our state for tomorrow. The time has come to plan intelligently for the continued growth of Connecticut so that we have the jobs, housing and amenities we need while protecting the landscapes, the forests and the rivers that make this state unique.

“By coordinating the work of our state agencies in the areas of transportation and housing we increase our chance of success for transit-oriented development that provides commuters and city residents with bus or rail alternatives to their cars. That coordination also means we are more likely to revitalize rail lines and create bus routes along corridors people travel from home to work and back.

“Only by bringing everyone to the same table can we create lasting, positive change. I want to see real, comprehensive planning. We have the opportunity to leave a lasting legacy for future generations. We need to do this right.”