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Understanding town plans: what they are, why they matter

“What does a community want to protect or preserve: open space, historic resources, natural resources, the kind of things that make a community feel special to people.”

KENT — The Town Plan of Conservation and Development, or POCD, is for most people either mysterious or completely uninteresting.

But it shouldn’t be.

People who live in and come to the Northwest Corner of Connecticut are almost always drawn here by the beauty of the houses, the lawns, the fields, the forests.

It is, largely, planning and zoning regulations that define and protect all that beauty, and what used to be known as “rural character.”

The document that essentially creates a town’s zoning regulations is the town plan.

Glenn Chalder has been a town planning consultant in Connecticut for about four decades. In the Northwest Corner he has worked on zoning-related projects with Salisbury, Falls Village, Norfolk and Cornwall. He is now guiding Kent through the process of updating its town plan.

In the early stages of working on a town plan update, he said, the goal is to draw out of people what matters to them and how they want their town to look. 

He divides topics into three categories. The first is conservation. 

“What does a community want to protect or preserve: open space, historic resources, natural resources,  the kind of things that make a community feel special to people.”

The second category is development.

“How do you want to guide  growth or change? The world is changing quite a bit. Town centers are important — but they’re struggling in the age of the internet; why drive downtown when I can order what I need online?

“If someone drives into town to the hardware store, they might stop to get coffee or groceries. But now they’re not going to that hardware store. 

“So you’re looking at business and economic development. Where do people work? How do we address housing needs? I worked with Norfolk on their plan, which identified housing costs as a major impediment to attracting younger people to town.”

The third topic is infrastructure.

“These are the services and facilities that a community needs: transportation, cell phone service, high-speed internet, libraries, town halls, police, fire.”

If you can get community input on those three topics, Chalder said, “that is how you get a successful town plan.”

And once that town plan is voted on and accepted by the members of a town’s planning and zoning commission (which is responsible for the town plan), it’s important to then translate that vision for the future growth of the community into planning and zoning regulations. 

Every town has slightly different priorities for its town plan, Chalder said. In Kent, he has the general sense that people don’t necessarily want regulations to tell homeowners what their houses should look like. But, he said, they care about the village center. 

Like most towns along the Housatonic River, they also care about the horizon line.

“The Housatonic River Management Plan that was created about 20 years ago identified the inner and outer corridors along the river.”

The inner corridor extends up from the river, and the outer corridor extends up to the nearest ridgeline.

“So if someone wants to develop a property in the horizon district, they have to meet special standards.”

Until recently, residents of Northwest Corner towns often specified in their town plans that they wanted to maintain “rural character.” 

That is no longer possible, Chalder said, because there were concerns that those words were being “weaponized,” to exclude diversity.  Towns can still talk about specifics of what they feel makes their town unique.

“Stonington is a seafront town with a working harbor, for example. It’s different from the Northwest Corner, which has more farms.” 

Town plans have changed in recent years in other ways, too, not just the elimination of the concept of “rural character.” Underlying the plans is also the requirement by the state that all towns must have an affordable housing plan by 2022. Most town plans, moving forward, will address that issue in some way.

In all towns in Connecticut, Chalder said, it is the planning and zoning commission that is in charge of the town plan. 

In Kent, it is a subcommittee of the commission that is in charge of the surveys and the creation of a draft plan.

There will be public hearings, so that town residents can comment and ask for changes.

But once the draft is complete and everyone has had a chance to look at it, there will not be a town meeting vote. It will be up to the Planning and Zoning Commission to approve it, when the time comes.

Once that happens, the commission will begin adjusting the planning and zoning regulations so that they reflect the new town plan.

If towns do not revise theirplans every 10 years, Chalder said, the state can withhold discretionary grants, such as funding for open space preservation.

But he feels Kent has started the process early enough to meet its December 2022 deadline. 

Kent residents are being asked to participate by answering survey questions online. Find the survey at www.surveymonkey.com/r/Kent-CT-POCD or call Donna Hayes at the Land Use Office at 860-927-4625.

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