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What Zoning Tells Us About Our Town

Land use and zoning regulations govern the use and development of real estate and are used by municipalities to guide the development of property.  New York City adopted the first zoning ordinance in 1916. In 1924, the Connecticut legislature granted towns the right to zone.  These rights are derived from English feudal law that gave the sovereign control over all land.  In the United States the sovereign is the state, which delegated its land use authority to the towns, guided by state and federal law.

Land-use and zoning regulations can be controversial because they restrict the rights of owners to use their property. But courts have held that a zoning regulation is permissible if it is reasonable and not arbitrary; if it has a reasonable and substantial relation to the public health, safety, comfort, morals and general welfare; and if the means employed are reasonably necessary for the accomplishment of its purpose.

In today’s world, zoning is supposed to promote the good of the community in accordance with a comprehensive master plan, required by the state, by dividing a town into residential, commercial and industrial districts (or zones) that are separate from one another and ensure that the use of property in each district is reasonably uniform.

Zoning is a road map for developers and others and draws a picture that illustrates how the community sees itself.  Developers, potential residents, business people and others look to the zoning regulations — for better or worse — to determine if they want to invest in the community.

The picture that is portrayed by Winsted’s existing zoning regulations is confused at best and self-serving at worst.

The current regulations, adopted in the 1950’s, are an ill-fitting hodge-podge of rules copied from large urban centers where zoning first appeared. For example, there has been almost no change to the historical layout of Winsted when factories were built in neighborhoods (or neighborhoods grew up around factories) – an outdated situation that still exists today and squanders the value of potentially beautiful neighborhoods.

Throughout the decades, Winsted regulations have been amateurishly tinkered with in a helter-skelter manner that often favored one entity over another, and nearly always added to the confusion.

For example, if the buildings on the north side of Main Street disappeared rebuilding would require a front set back from the street in an inappropriate “strip mall” type of development with parking lots in front of the buildings.

The existing regulations has a dizzying 23 zones. The proposed regulations narrow it to a sensible seven zones: town single-family; town center residential; town center; town gateway; production and innovation; rural residential; and Highland Lake.

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In accordance with Winsted’s Plan of Comprehensive Development (POCD), the proposed regulations directly state the need to guide development in a way that recognizes natural and historic resources. The new regulations also acknowledge the importance of and the need to strengthen town neighborhoods, which will attract homeowners.

As reported last year, Litchfield County is pricing people out. This is an opportunity for Winsted, which has housing stock of beautiful, historic and interesting homes at reasonable prices. Growing the grand list with families is a natural for Winsted, a perfect family town.  But little attention is paid to this end of “economic development.”

For too long, Winsted has had a “build it and they will come” mentality that has attracted many inappropriate and unsustainable developments that never got off the ground.  Businesses seek space and succeed where community buying power demands it.  Not the other way around.

The long overdue proposed changes to the Winsted zoning regulations cannot change the town overnight.  It is a beginning that will signal that Winsted is serious about itself and its future.


Charlene LaVoie is the community lawyer in Winsted. Her office is funded by the Shafeek Nader Trust for the Community Interest.

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