Citing Changing Times, Available Land, Essex Selectmen Vote to Combine Planning and Zoning Commissions

ESSEX — The Board of Selectmen took a step towards combining the town’s planning and zoning commissions on Wednesday.

First Selectman Norm Needleman said that with little available and sub-dividable land left in Essex, there isn’t enough planning work left to justify a two separate commissions. According to Needleman, about half of towns in Connecticut have combined their planning and zoning commissions

The Board of Selectmen voted 3-0 to approve sending the proposal to a town meeting, to be held in-person and by Zoom on Oct. 7.

According to Needleman, the younger generations generally don’t have the same desire to live on two acres in 3,000 square foot house as previous generations when Essex and its surrounding towns approved one or two subdivisions a year from the 1970s to the early 2000s.

“It’s most determined by the portfolio of work,” Needleman said. “It’s not likely that over the next 25 years there would be more than one subdivision every five years.”

Larry Shipman, chair of the Zoning Commission, said he agrees there is not as much planning work going on, and there will always be zoning work. A combined commission could also reduce some of the delay created by one commission having to refer issues to the other, he said.

“I find that, in my work, I find it easier as an applicant when I’m representing somebody, that a joint commission allows you to accomplish more in less time,” said Shipman, whose practice as an attorney includes land use and zoning issues.

Needleman also said there had been friction between the two commissions because the Zoning Commission isn’t obligated to implement the Plan of Conservation and Development drawn up by the Planning Commission.

“Planning and zoning make sense together because at least you have people on the commission focused on planning issues, so they can become advocates for the plans they develop,” Needleman said.

Shipman agreed that a combined commission would make the Plan of Conservation and Development more effective and functional because the same people who write it are responsible for implementing it.

Needleman said combining the commissions doesn’t change the zoning process for people seeking variances and map changes.

Town staffing will be a discussion for a later date, said Needleman. Essex already has a zoning enforcement officer also serving as the wetlands officer, and a “planner for hire,” he said.

“I’m always working to figure out the most efficient way to deliver the best possible services, so that will be a discussion if this passes,” he said.

Selectman Bruce Glowac said the town has debated whether to combine the planning and zoning commissions for years, but now is the time they should come together.

“We’re reaching a point where the town is beginning to be built out,” Glowac said. “There will still be sites available for housing, but the big housing developments are pretty much going by the wayside, and it’s now time to take advantage of this slowdown so we can bring these two commissions together.”

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