Zoning enforcement officers don’t have the easiest jobs. They spend much of their work day traveling around to inspect rundown homes, blighted buildings, overgrown lots and other messy situations where residents may have run afoul of local ordinances. They often encounter property owners unhappy that someone is looking for violations. And they face the prospect of personally being held liable for their decisions.
Now the ZEOs, as they are often called, can breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Under a new state law that becomes official Oct. 1, zoning enforcement officers will no longer be subject to triple damages if sued for job-related decisions. The measure puts them back on the same footing as other municipal officials and employees.
“[The law] removes the concern on the municipalities’ part that their zoning enforcement officers could be held for treble damages,” said Lisa Houlihan, president of the Connecticut Association of Zoning Enforcement Officials. “That is a statute that didn’t apply to any other code enforcement officer.”
Houlihan explained that this will empower towns — and their ZEOs — to more aggressively issue citations for flagrant zoning violations.
State Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, was a leading supporter of the bill. “I have heard complaints that under previous law, ZEOs held back on enforcement out of fear of litigation,” Duff said in a statement. “I fought for this law because it changes that dynamic and empowers ZEOs to more aggressively go after absentee landlords and help residents reclaim neighborhoods that suffer from blight.”
Christopher S. Wood, government relations committee chair for the Connecticut chapter of the American Planning Association, said his group has been pushing for a change in the law for the past six year. He said often times it would get lost in the shuffle at the end of the session and not come up for a vote before the full General Assembly. “I guess it just had to marinate for a while,” Wood said.
Wood explained that the law eliminates wording from a state law that says treble damages may be awarded if a zoning enforcement officer issues a citation that’s later found to be malicious or wanton. Under the bill, zoning officers are still liable for their actions, and still must cover the other party’s attorney fees if they are judged to have acted improperly.
Wood said prior to this law’s passage, many towns, especially small towns without a planning board or town attorney, were unwilling to adopt a citation procedure and even if they did, the zoning enforcement officers wouldn’t issue them. “Some poor Shmoo of a zoning officer making $20 an hour isn’t going to stick their neck out,” said Wood.
There was no opposition to the law change amongst those testifying on the bill during the last legislative session.
Attorney Ira Bloom, of Berchem, Moses & Devlin in Westport, chairs the Connecticut Bar Association’s Planning & Zoning Executive Committee. He said the committee did not take an official stance on the measure.
“I would say a good number of us, particularly those that work with municipalities, were pleased to see that [treble damages] provision eliminated,” said Bloom. “I think before the law was changed, concern regarding treble damages may have hindered zoning officials from taking some actions.
“I don’t know how realistic the fear was but it was viewed as a problem by the zoning enforcement officers,” continued Bloom. “I heard that many times over the years from many different zoning officials.”
Wood and Houlihan could not cite instances of zoning enforcement officers being sued with penalties reaching treble damages. Wood said plaintiffs attorneys were not against the measure because, simply, “I don’t think [lawyers] were really relying on this as a strategy.”
Dwight H. Merriam, of Robinson & Cole in Hartford, who specializes in land development issues, concurred. Merriam said with the law’s enactment in October, more towns will establish their own ordinances enabling zoning enforcement officers to issue citations. As it now stands, those towns have to hire a lawyer and go to court to try to convince a judge to levy fines against a property owner. That’s often a fruitless endeavor, said Merriam, as judges are reluctant to issue hefty fines for a zoning violation.
As an example, Merriam pointed to a recent Superior Court decision in Middletown. Property owners in the Moodus section of East Haddam erected a garage and lean-to on the side of their property without getting the proper permits from the town. James Puska, the zoning enforcement officer in East Haddam went to court to get the Besek family to remove the structures as well as impose fines and award attorney fees.
Judge Robert Holzberg issued a permanent injunction ordering the structures removed, but he declined to fine the violators unless they fail to comply with his order. “The judges are most interested in resolving the controversies and not issuing substantial penalties,” said Merriam. “They believe the court system is better served by the opportunity to resolve these at the administrative levels.”
Meanwhile, said Merriam, towns that do have citiation ordinances have a checks and balances system in place that allows alleged violators to appeal and go before a town hearing officer.•