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CT towns weigh affordable housing, wetlands protection

Newtown's Nettleton Preserve is near a property that has been considered for a large housing development.
Davis Dunavin / WSHU News
Newtown's Nettleton Preserve is near a property that has been considered for a large housing development.

Last month, Newtown, Connecticut’s Inland Wetlands Commission narrowly voted to allow a 117-unit housing development between here and nearby Taunton Lake. The local land trust appealed that vote over concerns about stormwater runoff into the wetlands.

Newtown’s one of several Connecticut towns where groups known as inland wetlands commissions are making big decisions around large housing developments.

In Middletown last year, residents opposed a 148-unit development due to concerns about stormwater runoff. The developer came back earlier this week with a scaled-down version.

A bill currently in the state General Assembly would put new limits on wetlands reviews and make them easier to appeal. Dozens of environmental groups oppose the bill — they say it would expose the state’s wetlands to development and destruction. Save the Sound called it potentially the largest rollback of environmental protections the state has ever seen.

“That gets to the question of who gets to live at the top of the hill," environmental planner Denise Savageau said. “Land that is more valuable is land that is dry, because then you don't have to go through these regulatory processes. If you're going to do housing right and sustainably, there's a lot of challenges working in these systems. Developers are looking like, what land do I get cheap?”

Wetlands may be cheap for developers, but Savageau said they’re a valuable tool against climate change.

“Wetlands are regulators," she said. "They're the ones that help protect us from drought. They help protect us from flooding. They're really an important part of our ecosystem.”

Connecticut enshrined wetlands protection into state law in 1972 and created the local inland wetlands commissions that are now a unique part of Connecticut’s zoning process.

“It's been delegated to the towns, and wetland agencies have been also given many other functions, which has diluted their purpose," said Charles Vidich with the Western Council of Governments. “They're also doing floodplain management or environmental impact studies, a whole range of other things. They become a wastebasket for many functions.”

Vidich said nearby states, like Vermont, have far more state oversight and protection for wetlands at the state level.

“Every development proposal is a negotiated settlement of how much wetlands we're going to take," he said. "This is the evolution of development where there's no land left, except wetlands. So are we then going to fill them?”

But some housing advocates say local wetlands challenges could be a form of NIMBYism — possibly to keep out low-income residents.

“They almost always are about affordable housing," said Erin Boggs, with the Open Communities Alliance. “It is all the more critical that these decisions be made based on true environmental considerations and that this whole process not be hijacked”

Boggs said affordable, multifamily housing is actually the more environmentally friendly option.

“Most of Connecticut is large-lot single-family homes," she said. "This forces us to be spread out, it really compels us to be driving cars everywhere. It takes up land that otherwise could be open space or farmland. So if we can build in denser, more walkable ways, it is great for the environment.”

Savageau, the environmental planner, said developers should look at areas that are already built out, even if they’re more expensive and that’d be better for residents, too.

“If all of a sudden we're saying we need to do affordable housing everywhere, and we're putting affordable housing out where, well, we've got some cheap land here, and it's wetlands," she says. "And that's why it wasn't possibly built upon. That's why the land is cheap. But do they have access to jobs? Do they have access to transportation?”

Big questions to consider for a board made up of local volunteers who have to juggle everything from floodplain management to environmental impact studies.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.

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