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Deer Lake: Another round in the battle between conservation and sprawl

The Ridge at Talcott Mountain, an apartment complex on former farmland on Hopmeadow Street in Simsbury, is an example of the newer trend toward multifamily construction in the suburbs.
Stephen Busemeyer
CT Mirror
The Ridge at Talcott Mountain, an apartment complex on former farmland on Hopmeadow Street in Simsbury, is an example of the newer trend toward multifamily construction in the suburbs.

In Killingworth, environmentalists and public officials are trying to stop the Boy Scouts of America from selling its wooded 252-acre Deer Lake Scout Reservation to a developer.

To date, the Scouts’ Connecticut Yankee Council has rejected two offers from nonprofit groups interested in preserving the land for open space or passive recreation, and it is entertaining an offer of $4.6 million from a New York developer.

A lawsuit has been filed to preserve the bird sanctuary on the property. The Killingworth Board of Selectmen passed a resolution strongly supporting preservation of the property.

The Deer Lake situation, on which the Council declined to comment, is another example of the whack-a-mole approach conservationists are often forced to take to save some of the state’s dwindling supply of open land. As with similar predicaments, it raises the question of how and where should the state grow and what lands should be protected.

Advocates say there’s no time to waste.

“Wild places still exist in Connecticut, but they won’t if we don’t do something to protect them. Parks and conservation are components of thriving communities,” said Walker Holmes, Connecticut state director of the Trust for Public Land.

State of sprawl

For much of the 20th century, especially in the go-go years after World War II, residents left Connecticut’s cities in droves for new homes in the suburbs. For example, Hartford had nearly 180,000 people in 1950 but 122,500 in 2020.

Formerly sleepy rural towns hummed with lawnmowers and weed wackers. The split-level ranch with a lawn and patio fulfilled the American Dream for countless residents.

However, much of the new development was low-density, hastily planned and dependent on cars — a pattern known as sprawl. And, as officials belatedly learned, sprawl had a downside.

“Sprawl is the most serious environmental problem facing Connecticut,” Karl Wagener, then-executive director of the state’s Council on Environmental Quality, told The Hartford Courant in 2005.

He and others in and out of government pushed for limits on sprawl. Some measures were enacted. A 2008 law created a “responsible growth cabinet,” and Governor M. Jodi Rell created an Office of Responsible Growth. The state’s Plan of Conservation and Development was refocused on “growth management” principles.

These measures were, at best, partially successful.

“Sprawl continues,” said Nathan Frohling of The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut, one of several nonprofits that work to preserve open space.

“Connecticut has done a terrible job of reining in sprawl,” said Sara Bronin, Cornell University law professor and founder of Desegregate Connecticut, a housing and land-use reform coalition.

Though Bronin and some others think sprawl is still the state’s major environmental challenge, it has somewhat fallen off the radar screen. There’s now more attention being paid to climate change mitigation. But they may be two sides of the same coin.

“So many of the things we’ve been trying to do for conservation and the environment related to sprawl have a direct connection either to climate mitigation or adaptation,” Frohling said.

A 30-member study group, the Commission on Connecticut’s Development and Future, formed by the General Assembly a year ago to “evaluate policies related to land use, conservation, housing affordability and infrastructure,” could offer solutions when it reports its findings next year, though it appears more focused on process than substance.

The new variant

The nature of sprawl has changed somewhat in recent years. For one thing, residential subdivisions tend not to be as big as they were a few decades ago, said Eric A. Santini, a builder and president of the Home Builders & Remodelers of Connecticut.

He said developments now trend toward 20 or 30 units, rather than 80, 90 or more years ago. For example, a developer announced plans in April to build 34 three-bedroom houses on former farmland in Canton.

The bigger change may be the surge in multifamily construction, with major apartment complexes going up in suburban towns across the state.

“Towns are starting to realize they need a variety of housing, not just single-family homes on one-acre lots,” Santini said.

He said apartments give young adults or downsizing Baby Boomers the option to stay in town. He said multifamily housing helps both the tax base and local businesses. All well and good, said State Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, chair of the Commission on Connecticut’s Development and Future, depending on where it is built. He said the surge in apartments is a “two-edged sword — we need the housing, but if it is built in the wrong place, we get sprawl” and its negative effects.

What would those be?

The downside

The effects of sprawl have been extensively studied over the past 25 years (see here, here and here). Most agree that sprawl:

  • Causes the loss of forests, farmland and other open space. Connecticut has lost thousands of acres of forest and farms over the past half century. A major study by the University of Connecticut’s Center for Land Use Education and Research, using satellite imagery, found that from 1985 to 2015, the state lost 115,200 acres of forested land and 39,680 acres of agricultural fields to development and related land covers, what the study calls “urban footprint.” The state now has more land in grass and turf (8%) than farms (7%).
  • Induces more driving, which translates to more congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollution, energy use and lost time. Spread-out development discourages both use of transit and walking, leading to issues with obesity and related illnesses. 
  • Necessitates the construction and expense of more infrastructure and increases the cost of services. 
  • Threatens the quality of streams and rivers, because the loss of vegetation and increase in paved surfaces causes more runoff.
  • Abets segregation by race and class, isolating the poor in core cities and, sometimes, the elderly in the suburbs.
  • Limits housing production, a situation belatedly being addressed in some communities with multifamily construction. Instead of big houses on large lots, more compact construction could have yielded more dwelling units at lower cost.

Smart growth

The antidote to sprawl is called smart growth, or responsible growth. The idea, in broad terms, is to draw development to town centers and transit corridors, where infrastructure and services already exist, and by doing so lessen the pressure to develop farmland and forest tracts.

State officials have taken steps consistent with smart growth in recent years, such as major investments in housing in downtown Hartford and other cities. The state’s brownfield remediation programs have put urban land back in use. Two new transit systems have been developed, the Hartford Line rail service from New Haven to Springfield and CTFastrak, the bus rapid transit line from Hartford to New Britain.

The surest way to protect open space from sprawl is to own it or own the development rights to it. The state’s open space and farmland acquisition programs continue, albeit slowly, toward their preservation goals.

In 1997, the General Assembly passed a law requiring that 21% of Connecticut’s land area — a total of 673,210 acres — be preserved as open space. The deadline to complete the work is 2023.

It won’t be met.

After the first several years, funding trailed off. At present, 513,310 acres, or 76.2% of the goal, have been preserved, according to Department of Energy and Environmental Protection figures. The plan is that the state would own 10% of the protected land, and its partner organizations, such as land trusts, towns or water companies, would own 11%. The state is at 71% of its 10% portion of the goal, and if the pace of acquisition — an average of 879 acres a year over the past 10 years — doesn’t pick up, it will take more than 60 years to reach it, according to the Council of Environmental Quality’s 2021 annual report.

But officials are buoyed by a grant of $15 million from the legislature this year for open space.

“We will be taking a very ambitious approach over the next few years to get to that goal,” said Andrew Hoskins, DEEP’s chief of staff, who oversees the land acquisition program. It is guided by the Comprehensive Open Space Acquisition Strategy, or “Green Plan,” which targets the “highest value conservation and recreation lands.”

Over at the state Department of Agriculture, its farmland preservation program is even farther away from its goal. In the late 1970s, the state set a goal of preserving 130,000 acres of farmland, a number thought necessary for the state to be able to feed itself. More than four decades later, 401 farms and 47,510 acres have been permanently protected through the program.

State Department of Agriculture Commissioner Bryan Hurlburt said the process in the first decades of the program was cumbersome and expensive. The department had to get individual bond approval for each farm and did not work with federal or private partners to leverage state funds. He said that has now changed and the process is moving more expeditiously.

He said it took the department 35 years to preserve 300 farms but only eight years to protect the next 100 farms. He noted that agriculture is a $4 billion industry in the state that provides 22,000 jobs, growing everything from tobacco to tulips.

Zoning and taxes

Open space acquisition has never been able to keep pace with the demand for development, so it cannot be the sole means of controlling sprawl. Two other measures that would encourage smart growth, advocates say, are zoning reform and less reliance on local property taxes.

Bronin said zoning is a major factor driving sprawl in the state. Desegregate CT compiled a “zoning atlas” of all the state’s zoning districts and learned that through zoning, “the vast majority of towns make it easiest to build single-family homes on large lots and difficult to build any other kind of housing.” Nine towns allow nothing but single-family housing.

As a result, “we build ourselves into the sprawl we see all around us, with the destruction of farmlands and forests — zoning dictates these results,” she said.

Sprawl means “you have to build roads, water and sewer facilities and streetlights, and the burden of paying for and maintaining them falls on the towns. Why wouldn’t you want to offer an alternative? We need a complete rethinking of the way we approach land development in Connecticut,” she said.

Desegregate CT successfully pushed for a bill in 2021 that made some zoning-related changes, such as allowing accessory apartments on single-family lots, and it created the Commission on Connecticut’s Development and Future. The coalition continues to push for changes that would allow mixed-use, mixed-income, multifamily development in town centers and transit corridors.

Another nonprofit working on zoning reform, The Open Communities Alliance, is promoting the concept of “fair share” zoning, in which towns would agree to build their share of the state’s affordable housing need. Towns would get to choose where to build the housing; Alliance director Erin Boggs thinks they would likely decide to construct multifamily housing in or near town centers, not sprawl in the countryside.

The Commission on Connecticut’s Development and Future is looking to develop model design guidelines for both buildings and streets that municipalities may adopt as part of their zoning regulations and which could help produce more mixed-use density in town centers.


Another driver of sprawl is the state’s heavy reliance on property taxes. The group 1000 Friends of Connecticut has focused on the property tax issue and released a report in December titled “Connecticut Property Taxes: Opportunity for Change.”

Connecticut, the report says, relies on the property tax to fund government services to a far higher degree than most other states. The study cited data on the distribution of tax burden, called tax incidence, that showed nearly 42% of the state and local taxes paid in the state were property taxes, and that, on average, municipalities realize an average 73.4% of their revenues from the local property tax.

The system taxes equivalent properties differently depending on which town they are in. It impedes economic development. It also drives sprawl.

“The over-reliance on property taxes fosters fragmentation … forcing Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns to compete with one another … land-use boards make decisions based on what members believe (often incorrectly) will increase property tax revenues such as attempting to attract high valuation properties at the expense of preserving farmland and open space,” the report states.

Governor Lamont’s 2022 budget contained some modifications to the property tax but did not change its fundamental structure.

Elisabeth Moore, executive director of the Connecticut Farmland Trust, said heavy reliance on property taxes, coupled with a lack of strong regional or state planning, creates a “free-for-all, 169 towns driven by the need for tax revenue. Everybody wants a Walmart even if there is one in the next town.”

Good plan, no teeth

The state plan that directly addresses sprawl, at least theoretically, is the Plan of Conservation & Development. The plan, prepared every five years by the state Office of Policy and Management, “is an overarching statement of state policy in matters pertaining to land and water resource conservation and development,” as stated in a February report on the implementation of the plan.

Implementation is not a strong point. The plan is mostly advisory — it is supposed to guide the land use activities of state agencies. It apparently doesn’t do that very well.

Agencies are supposed to request an advisory opinion from OPM on all but minor projects. However, “agencies make their own determination of a project’s consistency with the State C&D Plan and only rarely seek input from OPM,” according to the February report.

“It’s a good plan, it checks all the boxes, but where’s the implementation? Where are the metrics to determine if it is working?” asked Stewart “Chip” Beckett of Glastonbury, a member of the Commission on Connecticut’s Development and Future, which among other things is looking at the planning processes for conservation and housing.

It’s not clear that the Plan of Conservation and Development is a high priority with the legislature. The 2018-2023 plan was only adopted this year, four years late.

Lack of a strong implementation mechanism in the plan can create a disconnect between policy and practice. For example, one of the plan’s growth management principles is to “concentrate development around transportation nodes and along major transportation corridors.”

If compliance were made a condition of state investment, it might have resulted in the creation of an overlay zone along transit lines, to allow multifamily, multi-use development near the stations. As is typical in Connecticut, some towns have done this on their own, but most have not.

Desegregate CT proposed a bill this year that would have required towns to zone some of the land within a half-mile of transit stations for more diverse housing. The “transit-oriented community” bill was similar to one that was adopted in Massachusetts last year, but it did not pass in Connecticut.

Without more impactful state or regional planning, conservationists are often forced into the whack-a-mole mode, as in Killingworth, where they find out about land going on the market and try to save it before it is sold for development.

“Sometimes we have to act quickly,” said Amy Blaymore Paterson, executive director of the Connecticut Land Conservation Council, which represents the state’s 130 nonprofit land trusts, increasingly important players in land conservation.

The hit-or-miss approach to land conservation by definition includes some hits. A spectacular example was the protection of a nearly 1,000 acre coastal forest in the lower Connecticut River Valley called “The Preserve” in 2015 after many years of conservation efforts.

On the other hand, in nearby East Lyme, conservationists have been fighting for more than a decade, in and out of court, to stop development of a 236-acre portion of the Oswegatchie Hills, a heretofore undeveloped coastal forest along the scenic Niantic River. Coastal lands are among the “Green Plan” preservation priorities.


Though the battles continue, the war against sprawl seems to have taken a back seat to concerns about climate change. That’s not necessarily bad, said Frohling, of the Nature Conservancy. The issues, he said, are not incompatible.

Climate change mitigation is about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which threaten to toast the planet. In Connecticut, according to a 2016 legislative study, the largest source of greenhouse gases is the transportation sector, at 38%. Residential and commercial buildings together add another 25%.

That would argue for transit-oriented development, to reduce driving and encourage more compact housing. Author David Owen reported in his 2009 book “Green Metropolis — What the City Can Teach the Country About True Sustainability” that for fossil fuel use per capita, the greenest city in the country is New York City, because most residents live in buildings with shared walls, which are more energy efficient than free-standing homes, and most walk, bike or use transit.

Another environmental daily double, a precept of both smart growth and climate mitigation, is preserving core forests. Frohling said preserving forests and preventing their fragmentation is vitally important for several reasons: carbon sequestration, water quality protection, plant and animal habitat and absorption of storm surges from the increasingly erratic weather patterns.

Lamont has taken some steps to address the climate issue. In December, he signed an executive order addressing greenhouse gas reduction on many fronts and involving many state agencies. He recently signed two bills, one calling for a carbon-free electric grid by 2040 and another promoting smaller renewable energy projects.

Reining in sprawl would help the cause. To do that, said David Anderson of Save The Sound, “We need to tackle it on both ends, by allowing high density in transit nodes and town centers served by water and sewer, and at the other end by protecting environmental assets that are inappropriate for development and more suited to conservation.”

The latter would appear to describe the Deer Lake property in Killingworth. As to its fate, First Selectman Nancy Gorski said in an email Friday there was no news.

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.