ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION DEPARTMENT;
May 2, 2003
DEFINITION OF NATURAL RESOURCES
By: Paul Frisman, Associate Analyst
You asked how Connecticut defines natural resources.
Although an electronic search found 72 references to “natural resources” in state law, the phrase is not defined in statute. Just what constitutes a natural resource has been a matter of concern in recent years. One school of thought holds that a natural resource must have some economic value (e. g. timber or minerals). Others base the definition on esthetic and related values. The most recent edition of Black’s Law Dictionary gives both definitions. The Connecticut Supreme Court has held that, as used in environmental legislation, “natural resources” is not limited to economic product value, but includes a broader range of values as envisioned in legislative language.
USE OF NATURAL RESOURCES
Typically the phrase “natural resources” serves as a general descriptive phrase following a list of specific words in statute, such as air, water, land, and other natural resources (CGS § 22a-1), or oil, natural gas, minerals and all other natural resources (CGS § 45a-235). (See below for other examples of the phrase in statute. )
In legal construction, using the phrase natural resources in this way is an example of ejusdem generis (“of the same kind or class”). Read this way, the meaning of “natural resources” depends on the character of the particular items that precede it.
For example, in the first instance above, natural resources could mean wildlife, trees and other aspects of the natural environment. However, in the second case, natural resources could mean other naturally occurring products of economic value, such as oil, timber, minerals, fish or wildlife.
This split between a materialistic and an esthetic/recreational view of the environment is reflected in the two definitions of natural resources in Black’s Law Dictionary (Seventh edition, 1999). Black’s first definition is “any material from nature having potential economic value or providing for the sustenance of life, such as timber, minerals, oil, water and wildlife. ” The second definition is “environmental features that serve a community’s well-being or recreational interests, such as parks. ”
This distinction has been the subject of litigation in Connecticut. The Connecticut Supreme Court, in Red Hill Coalition v. Glastonbury Plan and Zoning Commission (212 Conn. 727 (1989)), and the Supreme Court and Appellate Court, in Paige v. Fairfield Plan and Zoning Commission (35 Conn. App. 646, reversed, 235 Conn. 448 (1995)), have each addressed the issue. The former case held that agricultural lands are not natural resources. In the second case the Appellate Court held that natural resources must have an economic value; the Supreme Court reversed.
Red Hill Coalition v. Glastonbury Planning and Zoning Commission
The plaintiffs in Red Hill Coalition challenged the planning and zoning commission’s decision to approve a 30-lot subdivision on agricultural land. They claimed that agricultural land is a natural resource, and therefore fell under the purview of the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), which requires administrative agencies to consider the effects of a proposal upon “air, water or other natural resources” (CGS § 22a-14 through 22a-20).
The Court reviewed the act’s legislative history to determine whether the legislature intended to include agricultural land as a natural resource. But while the Court found express protections for agricultural land elsewhere in statute, it found no indication the legislature meant to include agricultural land as a natural resource under CEPA. Because the definition of agricultural land is very broad, the Court reasoned that including it as a natural resource under the act “could lead to wide reaching and very likely unintended results. ” Accordingly, the Court held that agricultural land is not a natural resource under the act. (In a footnote, the Court further distinguished air and water from land as natural resources, noting that air and water are natural resources that are generally not “owned” by anyone, while land is usually privately owned. )
Paige v. Fairfield Planning and Zoning Commission
The plaintiffs sought to stop Fairfield University from subdividing nearby property, claiming that trees and wildlife on the property were natural resources under CEPA. The trial court, without considering the facts in Paige, applied the reasoning in Red Hill Coalition, and found that trees and wildlife are natural resources in the generic sense, but not under CEPA.
On appeal, the Appellate Court, following the Supreme Court’s lead in Red Hill, examined the act’s legislative history and found no indication that the legislature intended to include trees and wildlife within the term natural resources under CEPA. It did, however, infer such intent from state regulations and other statutory language. Nevertheless, the court found a need to limit the types of trees and wildlife considered natural resources to prevent CEPA challenges to every subdivision request.
“Our interpretation of the statutory phrase other natural resources of the state, insofar as it relates to trees and wildlife,” the court wrote, “must be tempered by consideration of the necessary tension that exists between legitimate environmental concerns and the requirement that the right to develop residential and commercial zones not be unduly burdened (35 Conn. App at 652). ”
The court cited Black’s (Sixth edition, 1990), which then defined natural resources as “any material in its native state which when extracted has economic value. ” The court therefore concluded that a legal determination of whether trees and wildlife are natural resources depends on a factual determination of their economic value.
Judge Schaller’s Dissenting Opinion in Paige
Appellate Judge Barry Schaller found the majority’s definition “narrow and restrictive. ” He suggested a broader definition “more in accord with the expressed legislative intent concerning natural resources. ” Schaller said that the majority’s definition disregarded CEPA and the state’s overall environmental policy. He cited, for example, the legislative finding in CGS § 22a-36, concerning inland wetlands and watercourses, which states that the destruction of natural resources “will continue to imperil the quality of the environment, thus adversely affecting the ecological, scenic, historic and recreational values and benefits of the state for its citizens now and forever” (35 Conn. App. at 670).
In light of this and other statutory language “which views natural resources in terms of values beyond the limited economic product value,” Schaller said the court should take into account the broader range of values envisioned by the legislative language.
“The legislature,” he said, “clearly has recognized that we have advanced far beyond a primitive view of natural resources as no more than a source of materials available for human consumption and production, to a more realistic and forward looking view of natural resources as a complex of interrelated elements existing in a state of ecological balance, which must be preserved for life to survive on the planet” (35 Conn. App. at 671).
SUPREME COURT REVERSAL OF PAIGE
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, reversed the Appellate Court in 1995. In the absence of a statutory definition of natural resources, Justice Joette Katz, writing for the majority, relies on “traditional tools of statutory construction” and quotes from Schaller’s dissent.
Citing both statute and regulation, Katz wrote that “the view that the term natural resources is confined to the limited economic product value standard is nowhere expressed in our legislative history. To the contrary, the legislative history of the act is antithetical to that conclusion” (235 Conn. at 459). Katz wrote that “the narrow reading of the term natural resources ascribed by the majority of the Appellate Court contradicts the specific illustrations of what the legislature has stated a natural resource includes as found in certain provisions of [CEPA] as well as the broad policy language found throughout the act” (235 Conn. at 457).
As an example, she cited CGS § 22a-1, which states that “the air, water, land and other natural resources, taken for granted since the settlement of the state, are now recognized as finite and precious. Human activity must be guided by and in harmony with the system of relationships among the elements of nature. The policy of the state of Connecticut is to conserve, improve and protect its natural resources and environment. ”
She noted that CEPA was promulgated on a legislative finding that there is a “public trust in the air, water and other natural resources of the state and that in order to protect that trust, all persons are provided an adequate remedy to protect natural resources from unreasonable pollution, impairment or destruction. ”
“Therefore,” she wrote, “we conclude that there is no support for the economic value test in the language of the act, in its stated purpose or in its legislative history. Indeed given the legislative history and policy of environmental law in Connecticut, the economic value test has little place in our environmental protection statutory scheme. To require a party under [CEPA] to prove that the state resources he or she is purportedly attempting to protect have economic value is inconsistent with and indeed, detrimental to all expressed state and federal environmental policies” (235 Conn. at 462).
OTHER STATUTORY REFERENCES TO NATURAL RESOURCES
An electronic search of the statutes found the phrase “natural resources” in 72 statutes. Examples include laws that refer specifically to wildlife (CGS § 16a-100); aquifers (CGS § 22a-354g); natural gas, minerals and other natural resources (CGS §45a-235 and CGS § 45a-542k); and establishment of stream channel encroachment lines (CGS § 22a-342).
Other examples of the use of the phrase include:
1. CGS § 12-107a, which declares it state policy to encourage the preservation of farmland and open space land, to conserve the state’s natural resources and provide for the welfare and happiness of the state;
2. CGS § 22a-93, which defines coastal resources as the coastal waters of the state, their natural resources, related marine and wildlife habitat and adjacent shore lands, both developed and undeveloped, that together form an integrated terrestrial and estuarine ecosystem;
3. CGS § 22a-36, which makes a legislative finding that the inland wetlands and watercourses of the state are an indispensable and irreplaceable but fragile natural resource with which the citizens of the state have been endowed; and
4. CGS § 7-147, which refers to protection and preservation of the natural resources and ecosystems of the state, including, but not limited to, ground and surface water, animal, plant and aquatic life, nutrient exchange and energy flow.