Connecticut’s municipal lawyers are feeling the pressure of the recession. It comes in the form of shrinking town budgets, pressure from residents to lower assessed property values, and less financial help from the state.
The president of the Connecticut Association of Municipal Attorneys, John “Jack” Bradley of Rome McGuigan in Hartford, said members of his group are under pressure to “do more with less, and do it faster.” They have to help their municipal clients come up with legitimate new sources of revenue, such as user fees and permits, and to deal with staff reductions.
His colleague at Updike, Kelly & Spellacy, Robert M. DeCrescenzo, was mayor of East Harford for six years in the mid 1990s, and is currently town counsel for Simsbury. He also does work for the Capitol Region Council of Governments, Woodstock, Hampton and Scotland.
DeCrescenzo agrees there’s plenty to be concerned about. Nevertheless, the economic pressures of today are leading to smart innovations Connecticut towns are beginning to embrace: new types of land use planning, improved delivery of services and breaking “steady habits” that have little to recommend them. DeCrecenzo recently spoke with Senior Writer Thomas B. Scheffey.
LAW TRIBUNE: What are the trends you’re seeing in municipal law today?
ROBERT DECRESCENZO: One of the things is the tension between building the grand list [of a town's taxable property] through new and additional development, in order to raise tax revenues, and maintaining the character of a town in the process. I’m finding that many, many towns are being very careful in scrutinizing their zoning and planning regulations to make sure one side doesn’t overwhelm the other. Towns are looking for new strategies and new zoning tools to maximize grand list growth over the long run, while avoiding the negative aspects of suburban sprawl.
LAW TRIBUNE: Is Connecticut going to be receptive to “smart growth” ideas that are being tried in places like Oregon?
DECRESCENZO: The next phase of zoning in Connecticut is probably a move toward a more form-based zoning code, rather than the use-based code we have today. Form-based code looks at the form of the buildings being proposed, the layout of the streets, and the three-dimensional aspects of a development, rather than separating uses – industrial, commercial, retail, office buildings. Form-based code is more interested in the form and scale and relationship of buildings to each other. It looks at the size of blocks and encourages walkable neighborhoods.
LAW TRIBUNE: So there’s a shift away from the classic “Euclidean” zoning we’re so familiar with that divides town into residential, retail and industrial areas.
DECRESCENZO: Because people are unsatisfied with many of the outcomes that Euclidean zoning produces. You have to drive everywhere. By segregating uses, you inevitably force government to spread out more broadly, rather than trying to compact it into an already-built area.
LAW TRIBUNE: Are towns going to move toward a campus-like layout, so people can liberate themselves from the automobile?
DECRESCENZO: I think we’re seeing that already in many towns. The most celebrated example of that is probably Blue Back Square, in West Hartford. Like all things in development, it will lead to imitators. [The trend is to] make areas bicycle-friendly, pedestrian-friendly and…create higher value on less land, and leave open land in its natural state.
LAW TRIBUNE: What about the economic pressures towns face?
DECRESCENZO: [Municipal attorneys] are increasingly being called upon to find innovative ways to do things differently, such as combining municipal functions among towns. Drafting contracts to allow towns to work together to perform a single function across town boundaries.
LAW TRIBUNE: The need to save money might be an impetus toward the regionalism that Connecticut has so long resisted.
DECRESCENZO: It has happened with police, with the COPS program through the Capitol Region Council of Governments, but I’m seeing it more in the mainline municipal functions like information technology. There’s an interesting program going on right now, going live online to take out your building permit. You can do it on a jobsite, even, by going into the permitting web site and filling out all the information and getting the building permit electronically. Many cities in the Capitol Region Council of Governments are piloting this project, and it’s set to start within the next month.
There are a lot of good initiatives going on in that area. There is a lot of buying through consortiums of towns, for electricity, natural gas and other utilities. All of these require contracts among towns to iron out all the details.
LAW TRIBUNE: So tough times are causing people to use imagination to increase buying power.
DECRESCENZO: Regionalism today is really consolidation of the functions of government, not the units of government.
LAW TRIBUNE: What are the other areas for improvement?
DECRESCENZO: I think the greatest area is in the staff functions of government – tax assessment, collection, even town clerks functions could be accomplished across town boundaries. Most studies say [multi-]town safety dispatching is the easiest to achieve and has the greatest economic return. I think the big picture is that the current economic picture is forcing towns to do what private businesses have been forced to do in the past – find ways to reduce the per-unit cost to deliver the services they have been delivering. The most straightforward way is to combine the functions over town boundaries.