November 24, 1999
DUTIES OF PLANNING AND ZONING COMMISSIONS
By: Kevin E. McCarthy, Principal Analyst
You requested a description of the duties of planning and zoning commissioners. This memo discusses the duties of the two types of commissions separately, although in practice most towns have combined planning and zoning commissions.
This memo describes the duties of planning and zoning commissions because the law does not specify the duties of individual commissioners. Planning commissions are required to develop the municipality's plan of conservation and development and its subdivision regulations. They are responsible for approving individual subdivisions and may be responsible for issuing special permits and exceptions under the municipality's zoning regulations. They also review proposals for various types of municipal improvements. Zoning commissions are responsible for regulating the use of land and buildings under the municipality's zoning regulations. If designated by the regulations, they also issue special permits and exceptions. They may also be responsible for reviewing site plans submitted by developers.
In practice, planning and zoning commissioners are expected to regularly attend the commission's meetings and public hearings, become informed about the issues before the commissions, and demonstrate good judgment. There are a variety of print and on-line resources available to commissioners. Although somewhat dated, Connecticut Land Use Regulation by Prof. Terry Tondro provides a useful introduction to planning and zoning, with particular emphasis on legal issues. The Planning Commissioner's Journal, available in print and on-line at http://www.plannersweb.com, routinely has articles on such issues as transportation planning, ethics, and organizational improvement. Commissioners who are members of the American Planning Association receive the quarterly journal Commissioner. Many of the articles from this journal are available on-line at http://www.planning.org/educ/commindex.htm.
Plan of Conservation and Development
Under CGS § 8-23, the commission is responsible for developing a plan of conservation and development. The plan is a statement of the policies, goals, and standards for the municipality's physical and economic development. It must be designed to promote the coordinated development of the municipality and the general welfare of its people.
The plan must show the commission's recommendations regarding land use within the municipality. The law specifies several issues the plan must consider in developing the plan, including the need for affordable housing and the protection of drinking water supplies. Additional provisions are required for municipalities bordering Long Island Sound.
The plan can also contain the commission's recommendations regarding roads, parks, and other public improvements. The plan can include recommendations for its implementation including:
1. a schedule and budget for capital improvement projects;
2. a program for the enactment and enforcement of zoning and subdivision controls, building and housing codes, and safety regulations; and
3. plans for the implementation of affordable housing, open space acquisition, and greenways protection.
Before adopting the plan, the commission must publish at least two notices in the local newspaper and hold a public hearing. The commission must review and update the plan at least once every ten years. Under PA 99-117, if a commission does not meet this requirement, the chief elected official of the municipality must send a letter to certain state officials explaining why.
Under CGS § 8-25, planning commissions must adopt regulations covering the subdivision of land. The regulations must ensure that subdivisions are designed to:
1. safeguard public health and safety;
2. provide for water, sewerage, drainage, and flood protection; and
3. provide for current and future traffic needs.
The regulations must promote energy efficiency and may require or promote cluster developments.
The regulations can prescribe how a developer is to provide infrastructure improvements such as public utilities. The commission can accept a surety bond as an alternative to the developer constructing these improvements before final approval is granted. Another alternative is for the municipality to make the improvements and subsequently assess the property owners. The commission can grant conditional approvals of subdivisions. Such approvals are valid for up to five years, although the commission can grant an extension of up to five additional years. The developer is subject to a fine of up to $500 for each lot he sells before receiving the final approval for the subdivision.
Under the regulations, the commission can require developers to provide parks and other open spaces or pay a fee of no more than 10% of the value of the unimproved land. This requirement does not apply in certain circumstances.
Approval of Individual Subdivisions
The commission must approve all proposed subdivisions and resubdivisions, including those that already exist but were not previously approved. The commission must run two notices in a local newspaper and hold a public hearing with regard to resubdivision (but not subdivision) applications.
Under CGS § 8-26d if the commission holds a hearing on an application, the hearing must start within 65 days of the commission's receiving the application and must be completed within the next 30 days. The commission must issue its decision within 65 days of the close of the hearing. If the commission does not hold a hearing, it must act within 65 days of receiving the application.
Once a subdivision plan has been approved, the developer is not required to comply with subsequent changes in the zoning regulations, zoning districts, or subdivision regulations. Generally, the developer has five years to complete the subdivision, although it can seek an extension of up to five additional years.
Special Permits and Exceptions
Under CGS § 8-2, a municipality's zoning regulations may allow certain classes of buildings or land uses only after the applicant obtains a special permit or special exception. The permit or exception is granted by the planning commission, zoning commission, or zoning board of appeals, as designated in the regulations. If the planning commission is the designated body, it must run two notices concerning the application in the local newspaper and hold a public hearing. It also can notify abutting property owners by mail. The commission must act on the application within 65 days of the close of the hearing.
As discussed in OLR memo 91-R-0312, commissions act in an administrative capacity when issuing special permits and exceptions. This means that they can only impose conditions and requirements listed in the regulations. If those conditions and requirements are met, they have no choice but to issue the permit or exception.
The commission must review proposals for various types of municipal improvements. These include (1) the acquisition of land for or substantial improvements to parks, schools, and other municipally owned property, (2) street improvements, and (3) urban redevelopment, public housing, and public utility projects. The commission has 35 days to review the proposal. If the commission recommends disapproval of the project, it can be constructed or financed only with the approval of two thirds of the legislative body.
Under CGS § 8-2, the zoning commission is authorized to divide the municipality into districts (zones) and regulate the use of buildings and land in each district. Within each district the regulation must uniform as to the treatment of types of buildings and land uses, but the regulations can vary by district. The regulations may provide that certain types of buildings and land uses are permitted in a district only with a special permit or special exception. The regulations must designate which agency issues the permit or exception (the planning or zoning commission or the zoning board of appeals).
CGS § 8-2 specifies in great detail the types of issues the zoning regulations must and may address. Among other things, the regulations must be designed to:
1. promote public safety, health, and welfare;
2. prevent overcrowding;
3. facilitate the provision of public services such as transportation, sewerage, schools, and parks; and
4. encourage the most appropriate use of the land in the municipality.
The regulations may govern:
1. the height and size of buildings and other structures;
2. the area of the lot they may occupy;
3. the size of yards and other open spaces; and
4. the height, size, and location of advertising signs and billboards.
Under CGS § 8-3, the zoning commission must determine how the zoning regulations and map will be established and changed. Before taking these steps the commission or a committee of the commission must hold a public hearing. The commission must publish notice of the hearing at least twice in a local newspaper and make the proposed regulation or boundary available for public inspection. The commission can also mail notices to owners of land abutting the land that is subject to the hearing.
Adopting or amending the regulations or the boundaries normally requires approval of a majority of the commission's total membership. Under some circumstances, a vote of two-thirds of the members is required. This requirement applies if the owners of 20% of the land that is affected by the commission's action or the land within 500 feet of the affected area protest the proposed change. The protest can be made before or at the hearing.
The commission determines how the regulations will be enforced. Building permits and certificates of occupancy cannot be issued until the zoning enforcement officer certifies that the building or use conforms to the regulations or is a valid nonconforming use. A valid nonconforming use is one that was authorized before the commission changed its regulations. Under CGS § 8-2, zoning regulations cannot prohibit the continuance of nonconforming uses or buildings existing when the regulations are adopted.
As part of its regulations, the commission can establish village districts to protect the distinctive character, landscape, and historic structures of designated areas in the municipality. Under these provisions, the commission can regulate (1) alterations and improvements in such areas and (2) substantial reconstruction and rehabilitation of properties in the district that can be seen from public roads. All applications for substantial reconstruction visible from the road and new construction must be reviewed by an architect selected by the commission.
Special Permits and Exceptions
Under CGS § 8-3c, the provisions governing the issuance of special permits and exceptions by planning commissions also apply to zoning commissions. They also apply to special exemptions from density limits granted by the zoning commission for the construction of affordable housing.
Site Plan Review
Under CGS § 8-3, the zoning regulations can require that a site plan be filed with the commission or its designee to determine whether a proposed building or use conforms to the regulations. The commission must consider the report of the inland wetlands agency in cases involving activities it regulates. A site plan can be modified or denied only if it does not comply with the zoning or inland wetland regulations. Normally, the commission has 65 days to act after the site plan is filed; if it does not the site plan is considered approved. Generally, all work in connection with an approved site plan must be completed within five years of the approval; the commission can grant an extension of up to five years. In the case of certain large developments, the developer has up to ten years to complete the work.