Developer appeal was dismissed in state Superior Court
Quick overview: Justice Berger of the Connecticut Superior Court recently found in favor of protecting drinking water in Easton, Connecticut. This case sets precedent to protect natural resources around the state. Read on for more background information, and what this means going forward.
In the combined cases of Saddle Ridge Developers, LLC, et al. v. Easton Planning and Zoning Commission, et al. and Saddle Ridge Developers, LLC, et al. v. Easton Conservation Commission, et al., the court stated that both the Planning and Zoning Commission (Commission) and Easton Conservation Commission (Agency) followed the state legislature’s directions to protect watersheds when reviewing and ultimately denying Saddle Ridge Developers’ applications. The court rejected the developer’s claims that affordable housing could be used to override public health and drinking water protections. Therefore, the court dismissed both developers’ affordable housing and inland wetlands appeals.
This case dates back to 2009, when Saddle Ridge Developers proposed building twenty-one mansions on just over 124 acres of land. Within this land are eight wetlands areas, totaling just over twenty-eight acres of land, and a six acre pond in a 100 year flood hazard area. Runoff from the land goes into the wetlands and then drains into Easton Lake and Aspetuck Reservoirs. The property itself lies in a watershed area that supplies drinking water to over 400,000 people.
One year after this initial proposal, Saddle Ridge Developers filed an affordable housing application with the Commission, which was to replace the 2009 proposal. This application proposed building 105 townhouses on the land, and in accordance with Connecticut affordable housing laws, reserved thirty percent of the townhouses for such purpose. However, the stormwater management system from the 2009 development plan for the twenty-one mansions was left untouched.
After a series of public hearings, and an intervention from the Coalition to Save Easton where evidence concerning environmental impact was submitted, the Commission denied Developers’ application in 2011. Months later, Developers revised their development plan in an attempt to appease the Commission – by reducing the number of units from 105 to ninety-nine units. Again, the Commission conducted public hearings and then denied the application. The developers then began several appeals, and the Coalition to Save Easton intervened.
The Decision and Its Importance on a Local and State Level
The Connecticut Superior Court found that the Commission and Agency not only provided sufficient evidence, but that the evidence showed overwhelming support for denial of Developers’ proposal. The development would have gone against multiple government studies and policies that were put in place to protect wetlands, watersheds, and the public drinking water they provide.
The court appropriately found that the need for affordable housing in Easton is great. At this point the court must, under statute, balance the need for affordable housing with protecting the public’s interest in access to safe drinking water. During the course of litigation, both the Aquarion Water Company and the CT Department of Public Health Studies found that the Developers’ proposal would be over two times denser than the maximum density recommended for safe drinking water supply areas. This density would directly affect the wetlands and watercourses both during and after construction. Therefore, the court determined that although affordable housing is an important issue, the law did not support such development when it would require destroying natural resources – resources, in this case, which supplied over 400,000 people with clean drinking water.
The decision was also important in that it affirmed the principal that activities impacting wetlands are subject to the jurisdiction and authority of wetlands agencies, regardless of whether the activity occurs outside the wetland or the upland review area. The Commission stated “[r]egardless of the distance between the activity and the nearest wetland boundary, virtually all [development] activities generate a discharge to wetlands, watercourses or groundwater, during and after construction, thereby altering the physical, chemical and biological attributes of the wetlands and watercourses.” Therefore, to protect these natural resources, wetlands agencies have broad authority and jurisdiction over large areas of land.
Relation to Oswegatchie Hills
Connecticut Fund for the Environment is involved in a case to save the Oswegatchie Hills that has some similarities. The land in that case is part of a fragile coastal forest on the Niantic River, which flows into Long Island Sound. Two-thirds of the forest has been protected through establishing the Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve. The final third, however, is being threatened with a high density development that would ruin habitats and threaten water quality. This development would consist of 840 units of housing and 1,767 parking spaces. Drinking water is not the issue in the Oswegatchie Hills case — the pollution would flow into the Niantic River and wetlands, not a drinking water reservoir. Nevertheless, the cases are similar in that they involve developer’s attempt to overturn long standing state and local environmental and public health policy and that the proposed projects should be rejected on that basis.