Ask Candidates Where they Stand on Local Zoning and Environmental Protection

Alexis Harrison

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In the last week, people around the world have directly felt the impact of climate change, with soaring temperatures from coast-to-coast and hot temperatures causing a record amount of power consumption. Cooling centers have been opened to bring relief and we’re told to check on each other, especially senior citizens and the vulnerable. In Europe, extreme temperatures have become catastrophic, causing massive and deadly forest fires.

On one of these hot days, a friend shared an article with me from The Guardian on the heatwave and how the on-going trend to deregulate our zoning in cities to spur development has widespread implications. In this illuminating article, Jesse Keenan, a climate expert from Tulane University pointed out that since the 1990s several states have gutted housing regulations to help spur development that has now left several cities, such as in Scottsdale, Arizona struggling to secure enough water to survive. According to the article, the sprawl of concrete for new housing and inadequate urban forestry programs have heightened temperatures in many of these growing cities. The spread of hard surfaces has also led to flash flooding, as Houston found to its cost during the devastating Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

The warning signs of our climate change are hard to ignore — sea-level rise is real and more severe storms and weather are a reality.

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Here in the Nutmeg State, zoning has become a high-profile issue in recent years.  There has been a push by Hartford legislators, housing advocacy groups and development lobbyists to create state-wide development and density mandates and reduce local control of our zoning, without much regard to climate change and the role of the natural environment in delaying and lessening its impact. If the bills proposed over the past few years had all passed, then Connecticut’s 169 towns and cities would now be largely unable to make land use decisions. As a long-time land-use advocate and now zoning commissioner, these trends are alarming, and it should be to you, too.

Some bills introduced in recent legislative sessions have called for increasingly dense housing in our suburbs (doubling the number of housing units in some cases) and mandates to build housing units around transit and train stations which are mostly located in coastal areas that are already impacted by climate change. 

The idea that local governments could not make sound land use decisions to me is a slippery slope and ideas that will have implications on our communities. Land-use bodies like your local zoning boards are your first line of defense when it comes to environmental protection. Land use decisions are critically important when planning for climate change, which is the most pressing issue of our time. 

Already in Connecticut we have a zoning law, CGS 8-30g, enacted in 1989, which applies to municipalities where 10% of total housing stock does not qualify as “affordable” housing. If the 10% target is not met, developers may propose projects that are not subject to any local zoning regulations, creating density, adding impervious surfaces, and bearing stresses on our infrastructure and natural environment. This law has seen little change in the 30+ years it’s been in effect and climate change has worsened in this time. Our legislators must seriously re-visit and re-evaluate this law, which has created little affordability (10 percent ratio is virtually a mathematical impossibility in part because 70 percent of the new units need not be affordable) and adversely impacts our natural environment.

Decisions made by our local commissions on zoning should protect our natural resources which can then provide shade, cooling and natural flood control-trees, shrubs and natural soils not only help modulate water quantity but help cleanse water, and trees also absorb carbon and help cleanse air of pollution.

Natural ecosystems and green spaces large and small not only promote the public health but also reflect the unique nature of each community, whether it’s a small hamlet, a town or city.

Because land is not uniform and can’t be relocated, its unique nature must be protected where it is. Centralized planning simply does not allow for that as we’ve seen in many if the bills that luckily didn’t pass. Not yet anyway. 

We ignore the powerful saving graces of our natural resources at our peril. We must prioritize and expand environmental protection and that must include retaining local control over development decisions. Your legislators and aspiring legislators are seeking office this fall and they will be asking you for your vote. As they campaign and canvas, I encourage you to ask them where they stand on local zoning and if they will be committing to environmental protection and fight for our local towns and cities. It’s only right that they do.