Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Sweeping changes to benefit open space

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
April 16, 2007

VERNON - The Planning and Zoning Commission voted for sweeping regulation changes last week that will increase the amount of land developers must set aside for open space from a voluntary maximum of 5 percent to, in some areas, a mandatory 20 percent.

The commission voted 5 to 1 in favor of the changes, which go into effect April 25.

Commission member Ralph Zahner was the lone dissenting voice. He maintained that if the town wanted to preserve open space it should set aside funds and buy it, rather than force landowners to donate it.

Other commission members said no one is being forced to do anything, unless property owners decided to subdivide their land and place a financial burden on town services. And the regulation gives developers the option of donating cash to the open space fund rather than actual land, they added.

Also, the amount of land to be set aside varies, depending on the neighborhood.

Under the guidelines, new sub-divisions in Rockville and north of I-84 must set aside 12 percent of the property being developed for open space, while residential and wooded areas south of the highway will see a 15 percent requirement. Land following the Hockanum and Tankerhoosen rivers, however, will be required to set aside 20 percent of land.

In lieu of the land set aside, developers can instead pay 10 percent of the fair market value prior to sub-division to the town's open space fund. The fund is used to purchase land for open space.

Town Planner Neil Pade said the commission would decide on a case-by-case basis whether a monetary gift would be acceptable or land donation required.

The option would allow the town to build up funds and purchase prime undeveloped property in order to keep it pristine for all residents to enjoy, he said.

And "the option will certainly create more of an incentive to donate to the open space fund," Pade said.

Earlier in the year angry landowners and conservation proponents packed the five public hearings on the issue to speak out on the proposal, which was made jointly by the Conservation Commission and it's subcommittee, the Open Space Task Force.

Task force members said the intent is to offset developmental impacts on the community by making provisions for recreational and conservation measures. With each new subdivision the town must provide added dollars in its budget for education, public works, and public safety, they say.

Furthering the problem was the fact that Vernon's former set-aside of 5 percent was optional, and rarely exercised, they added.

Members also pointed to a recent survey by the Capitol Regional Council of Governments that showed Vernon has one of the lowest set aside requirements in the 29-town region as cause for a change.

Conservation Commission chairwoman Sheryl McMullen said the amendments were long overdue and a step in the right direction.

"In the community, it raised awareness that all this beautiful forest and farmland we have is not protected," McMullen said today. "Not a lot of people realize that it's all privately owned, and if we're not careful, we could wind up overdeveloped like Manchester."

As for landowners who may have had plans to subdivide their property to help fund retirement, McMullen says the new regulations don't prevent that.

But "they are stewards of the land, and being an owner of the land comes with responsibilities," she said, adding that the town does need aggressive open space funding and a proactive citizenship to join in the debate during the planning stages before something is built.

©Journal Inquirer 2007