Connecticut scholar and policy-maker Terry J. Tondro, who died last month, could be described as a Renaissance man who helped usher in an era of land use law Enlightenment.
According to the lawyers, citizens and government officials he influenced and educated, Tondro influenced and improved laws regarding affordable housing, historic preservation, wetlands protection and smart development. The longtime University of Connecticut law professor won the respect of all sides as he did so.
His accessible 1979 book "Connecticut Land Use Regulation – A Legal Guide for Lawyers, Commissioners, Consultants, and other Users of the Land," made him, in the words of UConn law Dean Jeremy Paul, "the go-to person on property law issues."
"You could go to a meeting and see the lawyers for the developer with the book in hand, the commissioners had the book in hand, and the angry neighbors had the book in hand," said Dwight Merriam, a land use lawyer at Hartford’s Robinson & Cole. "And they were all quoting from it."
For 30 years, all that stood between the wrecking ball and dozens of historic homes was John W. Shannahan, former director of Connecticut’s Historical Commission. He was armed with Tondro’s collection of legal authorities and theories – and not much else.
"Everybody talks about that book. You’d think we were talking about the Bible, but it was," he said. "As the administrator for the agency, I had to go to court on many occasions and be a witness. Without the law backing you up, you really were helpless or naked before the courts."
Pulling Practices Together
If Tondro had consciously set out to influence a fast-changing area of the law, he could scarcely have picked a better time or place to do it.
Born in 1938 in Santa Monica, Calif., Tondro’s military service began in 1961 as a tank commander in peacetime Germany, and he used his free time to explore the wonders of Old World cities. After graduating from New York University Law School in 1967, he enlisted in the War on Poverty, working under Sargent Shriver in the general counsel’s office of the federal Office of Economic Opportunity.
Next, Tondro worked as an associate for the New York blue chip firm of Paul, Weiss, Goldberg, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. He left to earn an advanced degree at Yale in American Studies, combining work in city planning and affordable housing policy. From there, he launched his career at the University of Connecticut School of Law, drawing on his knowledge of history, art, architecture, government and law.
He didn’t let the door to the ivory tower close behind him, blending his teaching with public service and constant community involvement.
"Before Terry’s book, land use had been Balkanized and siloed into divisions," Merriam said. Some people worked in zoning and others focused on wetlands, he explained. Other groups handled historic preservation or affordable housing.
"Terry’s scholarship, his book and his practice pulled these siloed practices together and broke down the walls between them, in useful ways," Merriam said. "So people began to look more holistically at the land use practice. No one had really done that before he did that in this state."
Indeed, before Tondro became a lawyer, "wetlands" were swamps, to be drained or filled. The tax laws were stacked to make demolition of historic buildings the "realistic" planning approach, for depreciation deductions and code compliance. Affordable housing, back then, was a term used to describe "the other side of the tracks."
As Shipman & Goodwin land use lawyer Timothy Hollister, put it, "Thirty years ago, land use law was development and construction. Environmental law was pollution. The idea of building in a way to preserve the environment – green building – nobody had made that connection yet. That was where Terry began to promote the integration."
Hollister has argued some of the state’s most important affordable housing cases, but from 1987 to 1989, he was just a young lawyer helping Tondro on the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Housing.
That group came up with a method of promoting affordable housing that is unique to southern New England, Merriam explained. "Some states have a ‘bottom up’ approach like California, which requires affordable housing to be an element of the local plan. Others, like New Jersey have a ‘top down’ approach, which basically mandates lower-cost housing through its affordable housing state agency."
Connecticut and Massachusetts took a different approach. "Our affordable housing land use appeals statute is based on a case-by-case, ad hoc zoning override," Merriam said. "And you know what? It’s been pretty successful here in Connecticut and in Massachusetts in stimulating affordable housing, because it’s a pretty strong stick to be used."
If towns do not already have 10 percent affordable housing, a court can award a developer profitable, high-density zoning, based on a statutory formula, thanks in part to the legacy of Tondro.
"Some of the law’s success is unmeasured," said Merriam. When a developer asks for certain zoning and threatens to take an appeal under the land use appeal statute, "the municipality sometimes says, OK, we’ll deal," avoiding litigation, Merriam said. "If ten percent of a town’s housing stock is affordable, it has an out, and towns work hard to get up to that ten percent in order to be immune from the statute."
Weir Farm Work
Tondro often served on the fact-gathering commissions that led to new legislative policies, and helped balance policy formation for urban renewal legislation, lead paint issues, brownfields and polluted site issues, and historic preservation interests.
"In the ’80s and ’90s," said Hollister, "he often testified for one side or the other – sometimes it was like, who could get to Terry Tondro first. He was not an ivory tower academic. He was a thinker who was interested in seeing how his ideas fit into the real world of compromise and appropriateness."
For over 40 years, Tondro was a friend and supporter of "adaptive re-use" architect Jared Edwards, they were original founders of the Hartford Architecture Conservancy, and were at different times the Connecticut advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Edwards introduced Tondro to an endangered historic site in Wilton, the 30-acre farm of 19th century impressionist painter J. Alden Weir.
Tondro took on a leadership role in preserving the property, which is Connecticut’s only national park. For two to four weeks at a time, visiting artists take up residence at the property under supervision of a private partner of the U.S. Department of the Interior parks department, creating art on the site.
"The reason this will continue is that the National Park Service is the best steward of any property in the world, because they take care of it as if it’s going to be in their charge forever," said Stamford land use and community development lawyer Charles E. Janson. A student who was greatly influenced by Tondro, Janson says, "Terry was my law professor, and he basically got me into all of the interesting things I’ve done in my career. That’s the short story."
Tondro’s success with the Weir Farm was one of his proudest lifetime achievements, said Janson. When Tondro left the board, he recommended Janson as his successor, a role that he continues to hold today.
Another of Tondro’s former students is Alan N. Ponanski, an assistant state attorney general. Last year, Ponanski won a permanent injunction to prevent the destruction of a historic building next to the Wallingford Town Hall. The decision is based on a 1982 amendment to Connecticut’s Environmental Protection Act, and gives citizens legal standing to attempt to save buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.
Shannahan, the former director of the Connecticut Historical Commission, said that when Tondro was appointed to the legislatively-created Heritage Commission by Gov. Ella Grasso in 1980, "he was very focused with us in identifying some of the legal issues – or shortcomings-we faced in historic preservation."
Tondro zeroed in on the fact that, "Folks needed to have legal standing in order to be able to challenge threats to historic resources," and paved the way for the 1982 amendment that created it, Shanahan said.
Ponanski told the Law Tribune that the effectiveness of the provision as a preservation tool, "could not be underestimated."
Janson, the Stamford land use lawyer, said, "I think people were very lucky that Terry Tondro was where he was at his moment of time.
"The greatest legacy of a professor is getting people to think about the world in a new way," he noted. "Terry Tondro thought about possibility and creativity. It’s amazing the effect that applying the law in specific ways can have, and how it can result in tremendous benefits down the road."
Tondro, who sported bow ties and an optimistic demeanor, was 73 when he died at his West Hartford home last month. He’d suffered a series of small strokes in recent years. He will be missed by those who joined him in legal battles, both those who worked with him and those who worked against him.
"He was kind of a jovial spirit," said Hollister. "Dwight and I are always trying to tear each others’ faces off at these land use hearings, and Terry just loved both sides. He was either amused by the process, or when two sides were in a pitched battle, he would point out the third and better way to go. I think that’s why he had such a following."