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Land Use and Development

The Problem

People have often preferred to live near the coastline to use and enjoy its abundant resources, and the areas surrounding Long Island Sound are no exception. As a result of the cumulative effects of human activity, the natural values of the Sound have been diminished. In many parts of the Sound’s watershed, intensive development has significantly altered the land and degraded the quality of waters flowing through it.

Other areas are threatened by continuing development. Because the Sound is the “sink” for a 16,000 square mile watershed, its water quality is closely tied to the ways in which the land is used and developed. Urban and suburban development has also resulted in the loss of natural habitats and has limited public access to the coast.

The Cause of the Problem

Water quality protection has often been neglected in land use policies, especially management of cumulative or downstream impacts of land use that are difficult to predict. As population and development have increased, the local land use planning and regulatory processes have fostered uses that, however sensible from a provincial or individual perspective, have cumulatively degraded the Sound. Even where environmental impacts have been identified, engineered solutions have, in some cases, generated secondary water quality problems. For example, to replicate natural drainage efficiencies in urbanized areas, storm drain systems have been designed to discharge runoff as quickly as possible. As a result, contaminants in stormwater are rapidly discharged to the Sound and its upstream waters.

Ignorance of the value of natural habitats resulted in their despoliation, further contributing to environmental problems. While existing habitat management and regulatory programs have substantially improved protection and restoration of tidal and freshwater wetlands, some natural habitats are still vulnerable to development. Also, despite a significant increase in the number of public access areas, additional areas are needed. In return for paying for expensive improvements to the Sound, the public is deserving of a more accessible coastline for recreational purposes.

A clear connection between past, present, and future land uses and the health of Long Island Sound has been established. Accordingly, the plan to improve the Sound must address not only the consequences of existing development, but the improved management of future uses through watershed- and resource-based planning.

The Plan to Solve the Problem

In recognition of the importance of the relationship between land use and water quality, the Management Conference established a Land Use Work Group in February 1992. The group’s purpose was to identify the ways land use and development affect Long Island Sound water quality and habitat, and to present recommendations to improve land use planning and management throughout the Sound’s watershed.

However, managing the impact of development is complex and often controversial because the Sound’s large drainage area contains a population of nearly 8.5 million people, has many layers of authorities for managing land use, and contains varied and dispersed nonpoint sources of pollution such as urban runoff.

Many of the actions presented in previous sections that address water and habitat quality problems involve land use decisions. Improved land planning and use are needed to support implementation of those actions and to coordinate activities on the state, local, and federal levels and with the private sector.

Continued implementation of Connecticut’s Coastal Zone Management Plan and New York’s newly developed Long Island Sound Coastal Management Plan will greatly improve land use management in the coastal zone. However, much still needs to be done to implement all aspects of these plans.

Five areas were identified as critical to enhancing land planning and use to improve water quality, habitat protection, and public access throughout watershed. Recommendations were developed in each area.

  • The impacts from existing development are significant, particularly in urbanized areas, and must be reduced to improve coastal water quality. These areas should be targeted for nonpoint source management, including public education, infrastructure upgrades, spill prevention and response, and flood and erosion control. Also, abandoned or underutilized sites should be a high priority for remediation and reuse.
  • The impacts from new development are also significant and must be minimized to prevent further degradation of water quality. Progressive planning and management should ensure the application of best management practices, protect wetlands, minimize land disturbances, improve access, and maintain appropriate water- dependent uses.
  • To improve land use decision making that incorporates effective water quality and habitat protection, better information, training, and technical assistance must be available. Training, technical assistance, and financing should be made available to local governments, as well as education for the public, professionals, and trade organizations. This will help develop consistent land use and natural resource information and management practices in the region.
  • Conservation of natural resources and open space is vital to the long-term protection of Long Island Sound. Open space preservation and conservation practices must be aggressively pursued. This might be accomplished through a watershed-based planning approach that integrates protection of surface waters with programs and plans that guide growth and development.
  • Public access is essential to public use and enjoyment of Long Island Sound, especially since improvements to water quality involve public costs. Public access improvements should be aggressively pursued throughout the watershed using a combination of traditional techniques, such as fee-simple acquisition, and innovative techniques, such as transfer of development rights and tax credits.

Next Steps

Water quality and resource-based planning and management measures must be put into place throughout the watershed in a consistent and coordinated manner. Through the Management Conference, efforts will continue. Specific actions and potential means to fund them will be identified, built upon the general recommendations presented above.

The New York State Department of State has recently prepared a Long Island Sound Coastal Management Plan that sets out specific recommendations for guiding land use and development, ensuring public access to the shore, and protecting important habitats. The plan is consistent with the Long Island Sound Study plan and should be adopted by New York state.

Connecticut’s Coastal Management Program, adopted in 1980, contains many of the same provisions that are in the New York plan, including mandatory requirements for public access at waterfront parcels. Implemented at the local level as a mandatory component of planning and zoning reviews, the Connecticut program has afforded fragile coastal natural resources greater protection from development and has added in excess of ten miles of public access since 1980. The Connecticut program should be maintained at current levels.

Land use and development as it affects Long Island Sound is an unfinished agenda. Significant additional effort is required to determine the most appropriate means to effect change as well as to provide the funds needed to implement even the general recommendations presented in the plan. Additional analysis, new initiatives, and their costs must be underwritten by the federal government, the states of Connecticut and New York, local governments, and the private sector.

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