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Connecticut shoreline towns need new zoning

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Even before Superstorm Sandy slammed into Connecticut and the rest of the Northeast, a state task force that studied the impact of the damage from previous storms concluded that towns along the shoreline need to adopt zoning laws to account for rising sea levels.

The report, which was released Monday, doesn't say zoning changes should make it harder to build near the water. But two members of the Shoreline Preservation Task Force say revised zoning laws ultimately will make builders, mortgage finance companies and homeowners reappraise home construction on beachfront property.

“I think most people do not want to build homes that are unsafe,” said task force member Joseph MacDougald, director of the University of Connecticut School of Law Center for Energy and Environmental Law and a member of Madison's Board of Selectman.

Jennifer O'Donnell, also a member of the task force and principal engineer at Coastal Ocean Analytics, an environmental consulting firm, said prospective homeowners should know that damage from repeated storms will alter beaches.

“Do they realize that the house they're building right on the water will be in the water?” she said. “We've already been damaged twice in the last year by non-hurricanes, and we still have people building right on the water.”

Stephen Gill, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said measurements at Bridgeport and New London show that the sea level has risen nearly 1 foot since the late 1930s. The trend is expected to accelerate because of melting glaciers, he said.

“No matter what the storm is -- a nor'easter or a general hurricane coming up the coast -- storms will have more of an impact because of rising sea levels,” Gill said.

The devastation of Sandy in late October and Irene in August forced communities and states along the U.S. coastline to rethink rules for beachfront use as billions of dollars are required for rebuilding.

Planners are considering mammoth barriers or codes requiring flood zone builders to keep electrical and other critical systems above predicted high water.

Connecticut's report isn't detailed but instead offers “concepts and ideas that need to be fleshed out,” said David Sutherland, director of government relations at the Nature Conservancy.

Enacting new rules for where septic tanks can be located will go a long way in protecting public health if a massive storm again hits Connecticut's beaches, he said.

Other recommendations include streamlined state permits for seawalls and other coastal structures and increased financial help to towns, cities and nonprofit land conservation groups to acquire open space and watershed land recreation, tidal wetland preservation and habitat conservation.

Sen. Edward Meyer, a task force member, said a provision requiring the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to map vulnerable shoreline areas will be much easier than winning changes in local zoning.

“I don't think most of our constituents are believers in sea level rise,” he said. “People are saying, 'Keep your cotton-picking hands off my property.'"

Rep. James M. Albis, chairman of the task force, said Connecticut's strong home rule tradition that gives towns autonomy in enacting zoning and other local laws block state efforts to force changes in land-use regulations.

“It's something we're going to be struggling with and discussing this session,” he said.

The panel was established in February 2012, six months after Hurricane Irene hit Connecticut as a tropical storm and four months after a nor'easter crippled large swaths of Connecticut.

And eight months after the task force was formed, Superstorm Sandy hit the Northeast and inflicted tremendous damage in Connecticut, killing six residents, knocking out power to more than 625,000 homes and businesses and damaging or destroying hundreds of shoreline homes.

“It just reinforced what we were doing,” Albis said.

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