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Town to Propose Enforcement Authority for P & Z

Commission could impose fines for zoning violations

 

By Wiley Wood

If your neighbor starts renting out his house for all-night wedding celebrations or clogs up his driveway and front lawn with junked cars, your recourse—when a neighborly chat proves ineffective—is to file a complaint with the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission (P & Z). The commission’s zoning enforcement officer will investigate the matter and, if he finds your neighbor in violation of town regulations, send him a letter of notification.

But that’s as far as the town can go without proceeding to the nuclear option, which is to bring the case to court, a costly and bitter process.

“At the moment our hands are tied,” says Larry Freedman, a member of the P & Z. “If someone doesn’t want to comply, our only alternative is to go to court.” Because legal proceedings can cost tens of thousands of dollars, the town is generally reluctant to do more than issue admonitory letters. Cases of non-compliance often drag on for years.

By way of remedy, the P & Z is working with the town to pass an ordinance authorizing the commission to levy fines for land-use violations. State statutes allow this, and many Connecticut towns have put such ordinances in place. “It will give teeth to the zoning regulations,” said Tom Fahsbender, another P & Z commissioner.

Norfolk residents will get a chance to vote on the ordinance at a special town meeting this fall. In preparation, the P & Z will hold an information session at its September meeting, outlining the process to be followed in the case of a purported land-use violation.

“We have thought long and hard,” says Freedman, “ about how to establish a process that gives someone who may have a violation every opportunity to come to an arrangement with the town.”

The proposed regulatory changes define a sequence of steps from the investigation of a possible violation, to a request for voluntary compliance, to the sending of an enforcement order, to a citation for violation and the imposition of penalties. At every stage, the property owner has the opportunity to comply with or contest the P&Z’s injunction. He can appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals. If that fails and a citation is issued, he can request a hearing from a town-appointed citation hearing officer. Only when all the appeals are exhausted and the zoning violation is determined still to exist do the fines and penalties come into effect, at the rate of $150 per day.

“Our objective is really to bring people to the table,” says Larry Freedman, one of the key authors of the new enforcement procedures. “Only after every other step has been passed do we go to these other measures.”

An earlier attempt to pass a similar ordinance was voted down. Community members felt that the powers assigned to the zoning enforcement officer weren’t clearly specified enough. The current version has been in the works for at least two years, according to Freedman.

“This is not about making money for the town,” says Freedman. “The regulations are there to protect public health and safety, and to protect property values in Norfolk.”

The Planning and Zoning Commission’s informational meeting on the new ordinance and enforcement procedures will be held at Town Hall on Tuesday, September 12 at 7 p.m.

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