Knowing One's Limits

Knowing One’s Limits
Jeffrey A. Gordon, M.D.

There are two questions that pop up during every meeting I attend of Woodstock’s Planning and Zoning Commission. Why are you doing something? Why are you not doing something? These questions can refer to a specific part of a land use application or to the general concept of planning and zoning. They also may be rhetorical in nature.

Three fundamental truths for a government agency to know are that with authority comes responsibility, that authority has a defined jurisdiction, and that if the authority on a particular matter is not known, then know how to find out.

Municipal agencies have limits on their authorities as part of the checks and balances designed to prevent overstepping of power, either inadvertently or purposefully. For a planning and zoning commission, its authority rests with Connecticut General Statutes enabling acts (Chapter 124, especially Section 8-2) that allow your town, through local ordinance, to establish a planning and zoning commission. Such laws were found by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1926 to be a constitutional exercise of government’s powers. Over time, federal, state, and local laws have created more rules for a planning and zoning commission to follow. Additionally, during this same time, large volumes of case law, as adjudicated by the courts, have set or reset these laws.

If you look at a town’s zoning regulations, then you will see that the above state statute is cited and that specific items authorized by state statute are listed. By doing this, zoning regulations show you at the start from where their authority comes and what is the jurisdiction.

• Regulate the height, number of stories and size of buildings and other structures; the percentage of the area of the lot that may be occupied; and the size of yards, courts and other open spaces.

• Regulate the density of population and the location and use of buildings, structures and land for trade, industry, residence or other purposes, including water-dependent uses; the height, size and location of advertising signs and billboards; and in general the erection, construction, reconstruction, alteration or use of buildings or structures and the use of land.

• Prevent overcrowding of land, avoid undue concentration of population, and lessen congestion in the streets.

• Secure safety from fire, panic, flood and other dangers, and promote health and the general welfare.

• Provide adequate light and air.

• Facilitate the adequate provision for transportation, water, sewerage, schools, parks and other public requirements.

• Guide development, which minimizes impacts to wetlands, watercourses, flood prone areas, hillsides, public surface and ground drinking water supplies, and other sensitive and significant features of the natural landscape. 

• Encourage the development of housing opportunities and promote housing choice and economic diversity in housing (including housing for both low and moderate income households). 

• Encourage protection of agricultural and historic resources. 

• Control soil erosion and sedimentation, and manage stormwater.

• Promote energy-efficient patterns of development, the use of solar and other renewable forms of energy, and energy conservation. 

• Consider the character of a municipal district and its peculiar suitability for particular uses, and encourage the most appropriate use of land throughout a municipality. 

• To minimize conflicts among uses of land and buildings. 

• Conserve the value of buildings and property.

State statutes authorize a planning and zoning commission to do the above by establishing and amending zoning and subdivision regulations, and zoning districts; enforcing the provisions of the regulations; and hearing and deciding upon all applications for zoning and special permits.

State statues also define things that a planning and zoning commission cannot do - I won’t detail them all here. 

A planning and zoning commission must act at all times within its jurisdiction. For example, it cannot enact a condition of approving a land use application that is within the specific jurisdiction of another agency, such as an inland wetlands and watercourses agency or a public health department. This does not mean that the commission cannot get input from outside agencies. Indeed, it should. Rather, since another agency has jurisdiction over a certain aspect of the land use, the commission cannot over-reach its authority. Furthermore, if the law does not say that a planning and zoning commission can do something, then that does not mean that it can automatically do it. It may or it may not. For example, the commission cannot enforce specific design guidelines for construction, such as how a building will look, although it can recommend such. 

 Many land use court cases revolve around whether a government agency has or has not acted within its limits of authority. If it did, then the next legal questions asked by the courts is whether or not a government agency acted in accordance with its own regulations and other laws, as well as in a non-biased manner. 

 Sounds simple? Sometimes it is. Sometimes laws and court rulings are unclear or conflicting. Sometimes it is a gray area, needing judgment and common sense. 

So, when you see one of your town’s boards or commissions going over the details of its regulations, learning about existing laws, listening to the input provided by other town agencies, and asking for outside professional and/or legal advice, then you are seeing your local government knowing its limits and acting accordingly within its defined jurisdiction. It is all designed to keep the work that government does moving forward in a professional, accountable, consistent, and fair manner for everyone, with the proper checks and balances in place.

Dr. Jeffrey A. Gordon is Chairman of Woodstock’s Planning and Zoning Commission. This article neither reflects any official statement of nor any specific work being done by the Commission. Check out www.JeffreyGordon.com.

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