Connecticut Should Learn from Other States and Adopt Planning and Zoning Commissioner Training
February 16, 2021
by Kayleigh Pratt
Senior Policy Associate, Partnership for Strong Communities
It seems we are having a moment in Connecticut where real social change is possible. The last year has heightened awareness of racial and economic disparities our state has been ignoring for many years. The disparate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and increased calls for racial equity following the events surrounding police brutality have sparked conversations around segregation and exclusionary zoning practices in areas of Connecticut that have been segregated for generations.
Now is the time to implement some of the social changes, albeit incremental, that will affect communities long into the future. We should provide a basic level of education on fair housing principles and zoning to those making development decisions – planning and zoning commissioners – so that they are equipped to make informed decisions that will impact their communities for generations.
Planning and zoning commissions are often led by civically engaged volunteer residents. While this is a noble endeavor, many have no formal education or training in planning and zoning, land use law, environmental regulations and the like. This is why the HOMEConnecticut Campaign, with the guidance and input of an Advisory Committee representing diverse industries, is recommending the legislature acknowledge and address the long-lasting impact local planning and zoning decisions have on communities, and mandate a minimum of five hours of planning and zoning commissioner training annually.
How Other States Are Training Planning & Zoning Commissioners
Many other states train their land use commissioners. Currently, seven states require training of planning and zoning board members in some form – New York, New Jersey, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Maryland – with implementation dating back to 2001 in Kentucky. While the length and delivery of required training varies across these states, legislative history suggests a recognition of the importance of providing commissioners the education and resources necessary to discharge their duties. Further, the recommended five hours of annual training is comparable to other states, and two of the seven require training in excess of five hours upon joining a commission.
In developing such a requirement in Connecticut, the legislature can glean lessons from those states with established trainings including prescribing the substance and delivery of training. Of the states requiring training, almost all identify specific substantive areas for training. We recommend the legislature do so as well by requiring two of the five annual hours be dedicated to topics critically important in Connecticut – fair housing and variety of housing types. This provides the opportunity to ensure all commissioners have a foundational knowledge of exclusionary zoning practices, as well as an understanding of the laws that govern their commissions.
As other states have demonstrated, training can be delivered in a variety of ways and Connecticut can structure the requirement to allow for the most flexibility possible for commissioners. For instance, New York allows for commissioners to meet their required training through electronic media, video, distance learning, or traditional classroom learning. Further, the realities of the past year have forced a shift to remote working and learning, which ultimately provides a great opportunity for adaptable scheduling. Serving on a planning and zoning board is a large time commitment regardless of required training, and it is common for meetings to run into late evening hours or for special board meetings to be called outside of the typical monthly meetings. This recommendation of continuing education offers a fundamental tool to commissioners and is not intended to unduly burden them. By structuring a system where commissioners can have flexibility in meeting the requirements, the obligation becomes much less onerous.
Lastly, the state already recognizes the importance of subject matter training for commissioners of Inland Wetland Watercourse (IWWA) agencies. Connecticut can develop a training program to be delivered similar to that of the IWWA training. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection organizes these trainings on their website.
Our recommendation is to equip planning and zoning commissioners with the tools necessary to make informed decisions about land use changes that will last many years. Connecticut should develop and offer this training so that commissioners can take it at their leisure remotely to provide the most flexibility. It provides both the state and municipalities the opportunity to ensure that their commissioners have the most up-to-date information about legal changes in the field, best practices and other critical information to ensure all commissioners have the basic tools they need to serve their towns. The Connecticut legislature should use the state and national momentum to acknowledge past exclusionary practices and encourage social change through mandatory training.