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Towns here join forces for more effective land planning

FALLS VILLAGE — Something that started about a year ago as a forum on open space has not only blossomed into something bigger, but now has a presence on the World Wide Web.

The Northwestern Connecticut Regional Planning Collaborative is a regional planning pilot program spearheaded by two Falls Village officials (First Selectman Patricia Mechare and Planning and Zoning member Ruth Skovron) who organized a forum called "Bulldozers vs. Bears."

During the budget process earlier this year, the state Legislature approved and set aside $8.6 million for a regional planning initiative. The collaborative is applying for a grant from those funds. Theirs is the first application that has been prepared in the state. The theory behind the request: The member towns will work together with one planner.

This makes more efficient use of the money, and also reflects the fact that towns here are trying increasingly to work together on plans. This impacts decisions on everything from cell phone towers (and can help avoid the problem of one town building a tower right on the border with another town) to open space preservation.

The application is due Dec. 1, with the announcement of awards likely in February. Skovron said she is optimistic her group will receive funds.

The collaborative requested a state grant totaling $175,000 over the two years of the program, whose goal is to show how shared planning services can be delivered effectively in small communities. If secured, those funds will be used to hire a planner to deliver services to the Litchfield County towns within the two small regional agencies that already exist: the Northwest Council of Governments and the Litchfield Hills Council of Elected Officials.

Since county government was eliminated in the 1950s, Connecticut’s 169 municipalities have been essentially on their own in the area of development. By contrast, most of neighboring New York’s 62 counties have their own legislatures, along with tourism, economic development and planning departments.

Critics say that Connecticut’s lack of regional planning has led to the unchecked proliferation of suburban sprawl and a dearth of what planners and conservationists call "smart growth."

The Bulldozers vs. Bears regional project recently went online. The new site was unveiled last month to state and local officials at Salisbury Town Hall during a meeting attended by several planning and zoning commission members and selectmen in the Northwest Corner.

Greg Overton of the Nature Conservancy, which has helped fund the pilot project (along with several local banks), ran officials through the Web site’s features. There are pages featuring the collaborative’s history, its supporters and organizers, resources and links to other sites for pertinent information. The site can be found at nwctplannning.org. It also contains several scenic photos of familiar vistas and landmarks.

There are also biographies First Selectman Mechare and Planning and Zoning Commission member Skovron.

Skovron said there are plans to expand the site. The collaborative will post the zoning regulations and plans of conservation and development of the eight towns represented in the collaborative: Cornwall, Falls Village, Goshen, Kent, Norfolk, North Canaan, Salisbury and Sharon.

In addition, Tom McGowan, a town planning consultant who helped the collaborative during the pilot project, has posted a condensed "white paper" on open space he authored along with the directors of two local regional governmental agencies, Dan McGuiness of the Northwestern Council of Governments (which is made up of first selectmen from nine Northwest Corner towns) and Rick Lynn of the Litchfield Hills Council of Elected Officials.

More white papers are planned on various aspects of affordable housing, which is often cited by local officials as a critical problem. The collaboratives has also established new relationships with the Connecticut Farmland Trust and the Connecticut Housing Connection, Skovron said.

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