What will Branford be like in ten years?
The answer to that question may be found in the latest draft “Plan of Conservation and Development” (POCD) that outlines the town’s “window to the future.” The 102-page report breaks new ground as it commits the town to preserving it natural and cultural resources, conserving its energy, establishing rolling evaluations each year to document its progress and engaging the community in a variety of ways. (Click here for a closer-up view of the map.)
Both the plan and the town planner, Shirley Rasmussen, say the report will be a living document, meaning it is a working document, not a reference document. As such, the town’s outside planners, Planimetrics of Avon, Ct., say it may be reviewed and updated every year. The plan is expected to be adopted this fall after additional public discussion.
“A plan that is only updated once every ten years can be silent on emerging issues, trends, and current policy objectives, which could lead to conflicts in land use decisions or missed opportunities,” the report says in its implementation section.
The latest POCD draft was unveiled a week ago at a special meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission. The meeting was more or less hijacked by supporters of a proposed mall, Hilltop Centre, near Exit 56. Jason Vincent (left) of Planimetrics presented a PowerPoint overview to some 75 residents. He was joined by Glenn Chalder.
Every decade, the state of Connecticut requires a town’s Planning and Zoning Commission to issue a POCD. Branford’s final report will reflect the sentiment of town residents, officials, environmental groups and a supplementary town committee, the Vision group.
Bill Horne, a long-term environmental and conservation advocate for the town, called the latest POCD draft “very positive.” He said it will engage “and educate the Branford community about the issues of the day to a degree that I believe has not been seen before.”
At the meeting, Horne also told the P&Z that town maps may not reflect accurately the reality of what is in fact natural open space, including land trust properties and Town preserves and developed open space, like parks and playing fields.
There is also confusion between what is vacant land, as deemed by the Assessor and cited on town maps and what is open space. An inventory is essential, Horne (left) added. For example, the Stony Creek quarry is designated vacant land when it is not. On another topic, he suggested that the POCD needed to address issues surrounding the protection of water quality and the rise in sea level, the latter of particular concern to seaside towns.
Branford has 21 miles of shoreline and contains 14,000 acres. Its population is nearly 30,000. Over the next decade, the report says, its population is expected to remain flat, but there will be a far reaching change in age composition. The plan’s demographers say that the rate of population growth from 1990 to 2000 was about 4 percent. “This was the first time in 60 years that Branford did not see double-digit population growth rate.”
The last time population growth was discussed publicly was when former First Selectman, Cheryl Morris, seeking to change Branford’s form of government to a Mayor-Council form, hired an outside consultant who used ostensible population growth as a factor for change. The plan failed.
The POCD observes that by the year 2020, adults age 55 and older are expected to comprise over 40 percent of the population statewide. The figures for Branford are similar. “From 1970 to 2020, Branford’s population will have changed from a community with about 40 percent of the population between to the ages of 20 to 45 to a community with about 40 percent of the population over the age of 55.”
This shift in age composition may well lead to a different mix of municipal services, with concomitant changes from “schools and ball fields” to “senior center and walking trails,” the plan says. As for household size, the report notes a significant finding, specifically, that about 67 percent of all housing units in Branford are occupied by one or two people. In other words, the typical image of a housing unit containing a married couple and school age children is no longer the case.”
The report takes into account many recommendations articulated by residents at both Planning & Zoning hearings and the town’s Vision project. Residents have spoken at hearings, answered on-line surveys and participated in round table discussions. LINK over the last year. But a bit of a turf war seems to have developed between the two groups.
At the meeting last week, Ellsworth McGuigan, the chair of P& Z, said he was going to give the Vision group a full 30 minutes to discuss its findings, a statement that did not go over well. The Branford Vision Project group includes the town’s top commissioners as well as Laura Collins of the Chamber of Commerce, Karyl Lee Hall of the Conservation Commission, and Doug Marsh, the head of the Branford Land Trust, the town planners and McGuigan. The Vision Committee is led by former Second Selectman Richard Sullivan and its scope is far broader than P&Z requirements.
Branford has been a leader in open space acquisition primarily through the Branford Land Trust, now in its 40th year. From the floor, Marsh pressed McGuigan: “I hope you will reconsider the thirty minutes you have given the Vision committee. It is not adequate. “We will take it under advisement,” McGuigan replied.
One topic that intrigued the outside planners is establishment of so-called “village districts,” that under state law permit the P&Z to approve design review of proposed houses to make sure they conform to the unique character of an area or historic district, such as the Town Center or Stony Creek. The planners say that while originally enabled for villages, “the terminology can now be applied to areas recognized as having unique character, landscape or historic value.” This type of review would go along way to prevent proliferation of so-called McMansions which are often built on small lots of shoreline property in Branford and other shoreline towns.
The report also seeks an open space system that is interconnected with greenways and trails, linking these open spaces to the Town Center, Short Beach and other places. Bicycle paths were strongly encouraged.
Here Horne says the plan does not go far enough. “Create greenway linkages is far short of what is needed to complete the open space system that will accomplish the goals of protecting natural resources that are stated elsewhere in the POCD.
“Development plans for managing Town open space, meaning a stewardship system, is necessary and parallels a similar move by the land trust to prepare for the time when no more acquisition is possible and we can be fully engaged in maintaining what we have for our future generations.” ####