Residential development near the mouth of the Thames River. UCONN CENTER FOR LAND-USE EDUCATION AND RESEARCH
Residential development near the mouth of the Connecticut River.
Residential development near the mouth of the Thames River. UCONN CENTER FOR LAND-USE EDUCATION AND RESEARCH

A decade ago the state’s Council on Environmental Quality announced that the worst environmental problem facing the state was “sprawl” — low-density, auto-centric, poorly planned development —  because it increased air and water pollution and turned forests and farmland into strip malls and subdivisions.

The CEQ statement was part of a broader, if belated, realization that the suburban development that spread over the Connecticut countryside in the decades after World War II — progress, it was thought at the time — came at a cost.

In addition to the environmental challenges, sprawl demanded new infrastructure and increased the cost of services. It isolated poor and senior citizens, limited housing variety and even, by increasing car dependence, added to the obesity problem.

Growing awareness of these issues led to efforts to better manage growth. There was a blue-ribbon commission, public forums, a new citizen’s group called 1000 Friends of Connecticut and some new laws.

Shortly after this burst of activity came the Great Recession, which slowed sprawl to a crawl.

But now the downturn has grudgingly turned around, and development is ramping up.

Does this mean the state’s remaining undeveloped areas will be hit with another wave of sprawl?

They could, though most probably not at the postwar level. Though some of the measures taken a decade ago have encouraged so-called “smart growth” — the concentration of  development in town centers and transit corridors to protect open land — factors such as weak planning and heavy dependence on property taxes still encourage sprawl.

Crabgrass Revolution

The traditional Connecticut landscape has changed dramatically since the Greatest Generation came home from the war.

From 1970 to 2000, according to the Connecticut Metropatterns study by demographer Myron Orfield, the state’s population grew by 12 percent but the amount of land in residential use increased by 102 percent.

The UConn Center for Land Use Education and Research, or CLEAR, which uses satellite imagery to track large-scale changes in Connecticut’s landscape, found in its Connecticut’s Changing Landscape study that in the 25 years from 1985 to 2010, Connecticut lost nearly 70 square miles of agricultural fields and 190 square miles of forestland — an area almost six times the size of Manhattan — and gained 149 square miles of development.

As of 2010 that still left 59 percent of the state’s 4,968 square miles forested, although that number is a bit deceptive. From 1985 to 2010, 226 square miles of “core” forest, the deep woods that help remove carbon from the atmosphere, protect against flooding, purify drinking water and support many species of wildlife, were carved into smaller, less functional fragments.

The CLEAR staff is updating its land-cover data for the period 2010-2015, and the preliminary information indicates another 6 square miles of land was developed in the period, meaning open space is still being lost (though little if any forest was lost) but at a lower rate than in the latter decades of the last century. 

Statewide landcover in 2006.
Statewide landcover in 2006. UConn Center for Land-Use Education and Research

Other indicators of renewed development include housing permits, which fell from 11,885 in 2005 to 3,173 in 2011, but have rebounded to 5,323 in 2014 and are expected to top that number for 2015. A single permit is issued for either single-family or multi-family development, with local officials determining the number of units in the multi-family projects, said Dan Arsenault of the state Department of Housing.

Also, according to census estimates, the 10 fastest growing towns in the state in 2010-2014, by percentage of population, were, with the exception of Westport, small rural or exurban towns with a good deal of land: Union, Colebrook, Cornwall, Chester, Franklin, Hampton, Hartland, Wilton and Bethel.

Though this would seem to suggest the presence of sprawl, perhaps not. Union, the state’s least populous town, is projected to have grown 11.2 percent in the five-year period. First Selectman  Albert L. “Andy” Goodhall, Jr., doesn’t see it. “There’s no boom here,” he said.  “Maybe a few people winterized summer cottages.” 

Nonetheless, though the state’s population is flat, development is stirring. Many suburban towns are seeing major multi-family projects to answer demand from young residents, seniors who want to downsize and town workers.  Other towns are seeing the more traditional subdivision and single-family projects, in the drip-drip, parcel-by-parcel fashion that over time can become sprawl.

“There’s always a pendulum, and when it swings back, that’s when the pressure builds” to develop open land, said Lisa Bassani, project director for the Working Lands Alliance, which works to protect farmland.

Will development be managed differently this time?

Community Investment

Of the new measures enacted a decade ago, the Community Investment Act has probably been the most effective at halting sprawl. That law, passed in 2005, created a fund from real estate recording fees that supports farmland preservation, open space acquisition, affordable housing and historic preservation.

In its first decade the act channeled more than $133 million toward preserving and reusing historic buildings and sites, saving hundreds of farms and supporting agriculture programs, saving fields and forests from development, and building much-needed affordable housing. These programs have leveraged private investment and created jobs in virtually every community in the state.

Alas, like other special funds that aren’t supposed to be raided to balance the general budget (see: Special Transportation Fund), this one has been raided to balance the general budget. The investment act fund, which has raised $20 million or more in some years,  took a 50 percent cut for the last six months of the current fiscal year and all of fiscal 2017.  With the General Assembly facing a projected deficit of almost $900 million next year, advocates fear the Grim Sweeper could take more of the fund.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has supported open space and farmland acquisition with state bond funding, which earns praise from conservationists, but they say the Community Investment Act funds are essential as well if the state is to preserve its environment and quality of life, perhaps its best selling point.

Other Malloy efforts that support smart growth include:

  • Brownfield remediation funding. Cleaning former industrial sites, which tend to be in urban areas or village centers, creates new development opportunities.
  • Affordable housing. The state’s incentive housing program, driven by the HOMEConnecticut program, supports mixed-income, multi-family housing in town centers and transit corridors. Adding mixed-income housing in town centers promotes smart growth and can solve other problems, such as keeping younger residents and middle-class workers in town.
  • Investing in city jobs. One of the best examples of state investment to bring jobs back to cities was the grant and loan package to bring Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc. and its 1,000 jobs to downtown New Haven, to be part of the Elm City’s biotech industry. “Putting more jobs in cities is essential,” said William Cibes, a multi-credentialed activist.
  • Transit and transit-oriented development. For many land-use activists, planners and conservationists, the main difference between 2016 and 2006 is the newfound emphasis on transportation and development near transit stations. “Nobody was talking about TOD ten years ago, and now they are,“ said Susan Merrow, former East Haddam first selectwoman and chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. The new CT Fastrak busway from Hartford to New Britain and the commuter rail service from New Haven to Hartford and Springfield, coming in 2018, offer new opportunities for TOD.

In addition, some demographic and lifestyle changes work against sprawl. Families are smaller than they were in 1950 and don’t need huge houses. Younger people aren’t as enamored of driving as their parents or grandparents were, nor as anxious to own a home. They like the hum of cities, and so an apartment is fine for now.

The second 10 fastest growing municipalities in the state, in the 2010-2014 Census estimate, include Stamford, Norwalk and Danbury, with Bridgeport not far behind, which perhaps underscores the importance of Connecticut’s connection to the economic engine of New York. But New Haven and Hartford also show some growth.

In addition to the repopulating of larger cities, many smaller towns are rebuilding their town or village centers. Perhaps the most dramatic example is Storrs Center in Mansfield, an entire new town center adjacent to the University of Connecticut campus. West Hartford’s Blue Back Square about doubled the size of the town center. 

But many other communities across the state — Old Saybrook, Simsbury, Newtown, Brookfield, Ridgefield and others — are adding housing and other amenities to their town or village centers. Some towns, starting with Hamden, have adopted form-based zoning, which focuses more on the shape and placement of a building rather than what it us used for, to add density to already built areas. 

These trends should work toward smart growth. But two of Connecticut’s longstanding steady habits push in the other direction.

Planning Capacity

The first is fragmented planning. Many states have large state planning departments or planning divisions; Connecticut has four planners working in the Office of Policy and Management, who, among other things, prepare the state’s Conservation and Development Policies Plan.

The conservation plan, which guides investment by state agencies, talks the talk on smart growth. Since 2005 it has been organized around six basic growth management principles: redevelop areas with existing or planned infrastructure; expand housing types and opportunities; concentrate development around transit; preserve the natural environment and historic resources; ensure the integrity of environmental assets critical to public health; and promote integrated planning across all levels of government.

Most stage agencies try to follow the plan, and so it has probably encouraged smart growth. But the plan has no teeth. Towns can override the plan by making a project part of their own plan of development.

And it is not clear how well the state plan coordinates with other plans, such as the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s “Green Plan,” the state’s open space acquisition strategy.

A single state planning office might better coordinate plans at the state and local level. Such an office could, as Eric Hammerling, executive director of the CT Forest & Park Association suggests, champion more consistent protection of environmentally sensitive lands. Wetlands are offered special protections; deep forests, ridge lines and prime agricultural soils usually are not.

Such an office could also provide assistance to the fair number of small towns which do not have town planners. This is important because sprawl happens at the local level, for the most part, out of sight of the state. Some towns have worked assiduously to preserve farms and other open space, other towns haven’t.

Property Tax

A major reason they haven’t is perhaps the major structural encouragement of sprawl, the state’s heavy reliance on local property taxes. Property taxes are virtually the only way towns can raise revenue, and the need for property tax revenue sometimes drives questionable — or just bad — land use decisions.

An oft-cited example – New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. raised it in his 2008 campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination – was Canton, one of the smallest towns in the state with a self-contained school system, which gave up its beloved and scenic golf course on Route 44 in 2003 for a mall, the Shoppes at Farmington Valley, that would bring in more property tax revenue.

A recent analysis released by the Connecticut Data Collaborative, which expanded on a report done last year by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s New England Public Policy Center, estimates that 78 towns in the state, home to nearly 60 percent of state residents, don’t have the capacity to raise enough revenue to cover the cost of their services.

With the prospect of losing some state funding in the current budget climate, many towns will be open for business. “Some towns don’t think sprawl is a problem,” said Avon town planner Hiram Peck, whose town is one of many re-planning its town center.

Unmet Goals

The group 1000 Friends of Connecticut has shrunk to a core of about a dozen people, including Ms. Merrow and Mr. Cibes, who are only working to solve the property tax dilemma, the Gordian Knot of Connecticut public policy. Whether it means some kind of equalization process, emphasis on other taxes, or some other mechanism – and whether a solution could garner political support – remains to be seen. 

As long as the property tax is virtually the only source of local revenue, some towns will be ripe for sprawl. Often the only way to stop the development of open land is to buy it outright, or buy the development rights to it.

The state has long had goals of preserving 21 percent of its land, or nearly 675,000 acres, as open space by the year 2023. At the end of last year slightly more than 500,000 acres, about 75 percent of the goal, had been preserved (about a fifth of that acreage has been preserved by the state’s remarkably vigorous 137 local land trusts).

In farmland preservation the goal is 130,000 acres, and at year’s end 41,500 acres on 315 farms had been preserved. The pace has picked up, thanks to bond and Community Investment Act funding, with a record 60 farms in the preservation pipeline, said state Commissioner of Agriculture Steven Reviczky.

But if funding drops off, and if town are strapped for revenue, then yes, the state could see more sprawl.

Tom writes about urban and regional issues for CT Mirror, including planning, transportation, land use, development and historic preservation. These were among his areas of interest in a 45-year career as a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. Tom has won dozens of journalism and civic awards, and was elected to the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2016. He is a native of New London, a graduate of The University of Notre Dame and the University of Connecticut School of Law, and is a Vietnam veteran.

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