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Landscape Stewardship

Aerial photo of Hartford, Connecticut

Who Regulates Land Use in Connecticut?

Land use decisions in Connecticut are primarily made at the local level by boards and commissions that are made up of local residents who are either elected or appointed, depending on the municipal charter. 

Each municipality in Connecticut is responsible for managing land use and development within its borders. This is done through a variety of mechanisms established by the legislature, which are primarily found in Title 8 of the Connecticut General Statutes.

Planning Commission

The municipal planning commission is responsible for regulating the division of parcels of land into multiple lots.  This is controlled through the local subdivision regulations which are established and administered by the municipal planning commission. The establishment of the regulations must be done in accordance with state statutory requirements, which include a mandatory public comment period and public hearing.

The content of subdivision regulations is specified in section 8-23 of the Connecticut General Statutes (CGS).  The subdivision regulations typically include, among other things, standards as to the character of each lot, such as shape and percent of each lot that can be steep slope or wetlands. The regulations generally specify street or road design standards and required open space set-asides. Once the regulations are formally adopted, the commission’s role is to determine whether or not a specific proposal is consistent with the existing subdivision regulations. They do not have discretion to approve an application that is inconsistent with the regulations, nor can they deny an application that meets the standards and criteria of the regulations.

The planning commission is also responsible for developing the municipal plan of conservation and development.  This plan is a blueprint for the future development of the city or town. 

Zoning Commission

The zoning commission is responsible for developing and adopting the zoning regulations, which must be done in accordance with statutory requirements.  The adoption process includes an opportunity for public comment and a public hearing.  The zoning regulations establish various zoning districts (e.g., commercial, industrial, multi-family residential, single family residential) and the standards for each district. These standards typically include the minimum size of a "buildable lot" (i.e., a parcel that can be built upon), and the size and locations of buildings, driveways, parking lots and other improvements. The location of each district in a municipality is shown on a zoning map. Zoning regulations also control the uses that can occur on individual lots (e.g., residential, commercial, industrial). Similar to the planning commission, the zoning commission has little ability to approve an application that does not meet the zoning regulations, nor deny an application that does.

Combined Commission

In many cities and towns, the authorities and responsibilities of the planning commission and the zoning commission have been combined into a joint planning and zoning commission. 

Zoning Board of Appeals

The zoning board of appeals hears cases where the strict application of the zoning regulations would create a significant hardship and can vary the zoning regulations on a case by case basis.  Each municipality that has adopted zoning regulations also has a zoning enforcement officer. The zoning board of appeals can hear cases where it is alleged that the zoning enforcement officer has made an error in enforcing the zoning regulations. 

Coastal Management

In coastal communities, the municipal planning and/or zoning commissions and zoning boards of appeal are also responsible for implementing the Connecticut Coastal Management Act (CCMA, CGS sections 22a-90 through 22a-112). This is done primarily through the coastal site plan review process.   This process requires that the appropriate commission or board determine:

  • whether or not the proposed activity is consistent with all applicable coastal policies and standards in the CCMA; and
  • whether or not the potential adverse impacts of the proposed activity on both coastal resources and future water-dependent development activities are acceptable.
DEEP’s Office of Long Island Sound Programs staff is available to assist towns in the review of complex coastal site plans and can provide training in this process on request. Additional information on coastal management is available on DEEP’s Coastal Land Use Planning web page, which includes a link to the Connecticut Coastal Management Manual.

Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission

Local inland wetlands and watercourses commissions regulate activities that affect inland wetlands and watercourses within their municipal boundaries. Regulated activities are broadly defined to mean "…any operation within or use of a wetland or watercourse involving removal or deposition of material, or any obstruction, construction, alteration or pollution, of such wetlands or watercourses…"(CGS section 22a-38(13)). These activities are subject to local review and approval when proposed or conducted by all persons or entities other than state agencies. State agency actions are solely regulated by the DEEP. In order to conduct a regulated activity, a person must first apply for and obtain a wetland permit from the local wetlands agency. An applicant aggrieved by a decision of the wetlands agency may appeal a municipal inland wetlands agency decision to superior court. The DEEP does not have authority to decide appeals in inland wetlands matters.

In addition to work directly in wetlands or watercourses, construction or other work located in areas adjacent to wetlands may have an impact on those wetlands. For this reason, many towns regulate activities in designated areas surrounding wetlands. Such non-wetland areas are generally described as upland review areas.

The statutes omit certain activities from the definition of regulated activity and so they are not subject to the jurisdiction of the local wetlands agency. These activities involve certain agricultural, residential, water company, maintenance, conservation, and recreational uses of wetlands. In addition, certain activities regulated by the DEEP under its tidal wetlands and dam safety statutes are not subject to local control. While a local wetland permit may not be required for such uses, other environmental permits may be needed.

Depending on the municipality, the inland wetlands commission may be a separate entity, or a planning and zoning commission, conservation commission, or other municipal entity may act as the inland wetlands and watercourse commission.

The Inland Wetlands Resources Division at DEEP can provide additional information on the management of wetlands in Connecticut.

Local Supporting Entities

Local planning and zoning commissions often do not have the level of expertise necessary to completely understand the environmental, economic or cultural implications of applications before them. To help provide a more comprehensive review from the municipal perspective, several other boards and commissions have advisory roles in land use and development.  These may include a conservation commission, with its focus on environmental issues, a water pollution control authority, an economic development commission, and, in some municipalities, either an historic district, with its focus on historic and cultural resources, or a harbor management commission, or both.  Depending upon the municipality, there may be other advisory boards and commissions.

Regulations

Many cities and towns have posted their land use regulations on their municipal website and hard copies are generally available from the land use office in the city or town hall.

Municipally Owned Lands

Individual municipalities own land that is used for a variety of purposes ranging from open space to fire houses, administrative offices, schools and libraries. Some municipalities own golf courses, hospitals and even airports. The municipal owner determines the use of these lands, subject to any state or local permitting requirements. Whether municipal lands are subject to the local land use requirements will be stated in the applicable regulations.

Content last updated March 26, 2009