As you drive about northeastern Connecticut, you cannot help but to notice the beauty that is around you: the rural charm of towns and villages; scenic roads and vistas; forests and open spaces; farms and orchards; stone walls; peaceful neighborhoods; and small shops. For many of us, it is the allure of these things that makes this the area where we want to live, work or enjoy our time. We take these things for granted, but unless there is constant attention to them, they will not stay that way by themselves. The work that Planning and Zoning commissions do has a literal direct impact upon all that is around us.
In a series of articles, I hope to convey to you what planning and zoning commissions are doing. I will also provide explanations of pertinent concepts and discussions of current issues. Let us start out with a discussion of some basics of planning and zoning.
Planning is the process by which a community decides collectively what it wants for its future and how it wants to achieve those goals. As our towns inevitably face growth, we want to effectively guide how that growth happens: there are things we want to see happen; there are things we want to prevent; and there are things we want to prepare for because we know they will happen. Master planning is the deliberate, forward thinking, and ongoing effort of a community to manage its resources. Without planning, growth can occur haphazardly without a clear, comprehensive regard for its natural surroundings and neighbors. Think of what you would want (or not) built near your neighborhood or where you would think a new neighborhood should be built in your town.
Zoning is a hands-on means of regulating land use. Its goal is keeping incongruous uses apart from each other and protecting existing uses from being improperly expanded or encroached upon. A municipality creates zoning regulations that spell out in detail how land is to be used, how such uses can be undertaken, and how exceptions (variances) are allowed. General land use categories may include residential, agricultural, commercial, industrial, open/preserved, special use, and mixed use. Specific land use regulations can detail the locations of structures, size and height restrictions, types of signs and lighting, layouts of parking, population densities, open/conservation land set asides, or the types of permissible businesses. Variances provide the flexibility to handle, in a case by case manner, allowable land uses that are restricted by zoning regulations because of unique circumstances caused by the land (not caused by the property owner).
Zoning laws consist of two parts: the zoning map and the zoning regulations. The zoning map shows how a town is divided geographically into different districts (zones) according to use. It is drawn to show precise locations of land use based upon what is permitted within those specific locations. There are fixed zones that allow only certain uses in designated parts of a town but not elsewhere (for example, industrial). There are floating (overlay) zones that allow for specific purposes that could occur anywhere in town: village greens, flood hazards, or historic districts, as examples. The zoning regulations provide the detailed rules that apply to each land use district on the zoning map and specify the processes of applying and enforcing such uses. Development and design standards may be utilized to encourage growth that is aesthetically consistent with the character of the town or the part of town in which it is built.
Zoning is thus inextricably intertwined with master planning because it provides the actual foundation for the rules of order which give substance to and enforcement of the master plan. In this way, towns can address such public concerns as safety, health, quality of life, recreation, infrastructural needs, and environmental responsibilities.
So, how does all of this come together in a legal, common sense way that suits the needs and desires of your town? Each Connecticut municipality must have a Plan of Conservation and Development (its master plan). Zoning maps and regulations are created consistent with this plan. Land use requests are reviewed and decided upon based upon what the zoning regulations allow or do not allow. Your town’s officials follow-up to make certain that what is required to be done is accomplished in the way that is approved and to bring into compliance things being done contrary to the regulations (and the master plan).
Planning and zoning is a constant balance between different needs, perspectives, visions, and interests. For example, how to attract businesses that provide jobs and diversify the tax base, yet do not contribute to sprawl. We want regulations that are not vague and of little substance, yet we do not want rules that are overly restrictive and demanding either. All residents of a town can participate in such discussions so that the ultimate decisions reflect the consensus of the community. I am reminded of the Norman Rockwell series the Four Freedoms. One of the pictures shows an “average” man standing up in a town meeting, exercising his right to speak his mind before a group of his peers. That person could be any one of us or it could be all of us participating in the democratic process. So, the next time you drive around your town, be reminded of what it takes through planning and zoning efforts to achieve for your town what you and others want.