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Governments Plan for Development of Land Vulnerable to Rising Sea Level: South Central Connecticut

The Connecticut River Estuary Planning Region area occupies 177 square miles, centered on the Connecticut River. Because the river is tidal from the mouth all the way north to the Massachusetts border, the area of the region designated as coastal is large relative to its ocean coast area. The planning region includes all of Middlesex county's coastal lands, as well as western New London County.

The region experienced a nearly 10 percent increase in its population during the 1980s, though this has slowed recently. As of 1990, 35 percent of the region's committed land area was open space. Several towns in the region, including Clinton, Old Lyme, and Lyme, are particularly opposed to further development that would disrupt the natural and rural heritage of the community. Many towns are hesitant about economic growth because of the extra cost of municipal services and their desire to preserve the rural character of their towns. At the same time, because municipal budgets are drawn almost entirely from property taxes, some towns encourage economic development as a means to increase the local tax base.

Most of the developed land in the region is low-density residential, a growth pattern reinforced by health standards for septic systems that require setbacks from buildings. The lack of sewers discourages dense development and can create problems when a town grows larger than its septic systems can accommodate. For example, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection is concerned about groundwater contaminated with septic discharge in the rapidly growing town of Old Saybrook. Only the town of Deep River has on-site sewer and water treatment; the remainder of the region is supported by septic systems.

Low-density development has also resulted from developers' preferences for upscale, single-family homes. Most of the upscale residential development has occurred along the west bank of the Connecticut River and along the Long Island Sound coastline. Towns on the west side of the river, such as Deep River and Chester, have river embankments of 15-35 feet, in contrast with the eastern bank, which is of a lower elevation and contains several conservation areas, including extensive tidal marsh holdings by the State of Connecticut. According to regional planners, very little land remains available for development along the Long Island Sound coastline, but growth continues along the Connecticut River as large plots of land are subdivided. Because the elevation rise along the coast is very gradual, towns built along Long Island Sound, including Old Saybrook, Westbrook, and Clinton, are likely to be more vulnerable to sea level rise than those built along the banks of the Lower Connecticut River, where the elevation increases steeply.

Local residents and landowners in Westbrook are already grappling with beach erosion that decreases the aesthetic value of their property and increases vulnerability to flooding during storms. Beach associations and other organizations often formulate shore protection policies for areas smaller than a municipality. For example, landowners on Chapman Beach have formed a beach association to investigate the causes of and potential solutions to the dramatic beach erosion they have experienced over the past 30 years. This organization has also expressed concern that structural modifications by adjacent beaches have contributed to the erosion on Chapman Beach.

Development and Shore Protection

The staff of the Connecticut River Estuary Regional Planning Agency (CRERPA) provided extensive comments on the maps we created. The general approach of the study originally identified some other areas of undeveloped or intermediate lands where we might normally expect shore protection to be less likely, but which had actually been developed since the land use data had been created. Accordinly, planning staff suggested the following changes:
1. Change commercially developed areas between Route 1 and I-95 in the towns of Westbrook and Old Saybrook from to shore protection almost certain (brown)..
2. Change lands in Clinton south of I-95 from blue to protection likely. This area, which is currently mostly undeveloped, borders a designated Neighborhood Conservation Area, which is characterized by medium density commercial and residential land uses (see #2 on Figure 6).
3. Change golf course in Old Saybrook to shore protection almost certain (brown).
4. Change the historic cemetery in Old Saybrook to shore protection almost certain (brown).
5. Change areas along west bank of the Connecticut River in the towns of Deep River and Essex from blue to shore protection almost certain (brown). Properties along the river tend to be either 1-2 acre parcels or larger properties that could be subdivided. The map should show areas along the river as "pockmarked" red and brown areas (protection almost certain and protection likely) because of the rapid pace of development. The staff provided a paper map showing dock usage in parcels along the banks of the Connecticut River. Although the 1995 land use data show these areas as undeveloped, planners indicate that these areas are mostly developed, in low-density land use patterns.
6. Change sewer treatment plant along Connecticut River in the town of Deep River from blue to shore protection almost certain (brown).
7. Change areas seaward of State Highway 156 in Old Lyme to shore protection almost certain (brown). These areas, which were shown as either blue or brown on the initial map, are currently developed.
8. Cedar Island, a peninsula that extends from Hammonasset Beach State Park in Clinton into Clinton Harbor, has a few dozen seasonal homes on a sandy piece of land that has no road link to the mainland. Currently no armoring structures exist on Cedar Island. This area is likely but not certain to be protected.
9. Land adjacent to a large marina in Clinton currently is marshy and contains no structures, and is thus likely to be developed and protected, but not certain

Planners' General Comments

A large effort to preserve open space is under way, although there is generally not enough money for lands to be purchased outright as conservation areas. One exception is Griswold Point, which is owned by The Nature Conservancy. Land trusts are very active, especially in the Lyme area.

The 2005-2010 Conservation and Development Policies Plan, which emphasizes preservation of rural areas and smart growth, has a significant role in directing development in the region. The map accurately shows areas surrounding the village centers as brown. The region is committed to focusing development to stay within the brown areas. The net density in outlying areas is unlikely to increase.

Towns within the Connecticut River Estuary Region follow the Connecticut Coastal Management Act and enforce the limitations on the construction of shoreline coastal structures. Where the shoreline is not currently hardened (or at least was not hardened in the past), it is unlikely to become so in the future. The DEP is restrictive in allowing structural modification; they tend to block new structures from being built. For example, a permit for a swimming pool in the town of Fenwick was denied because it abutted wetlands. Currently, a Riparian Buffer Study of the Connecticut River is ongoing. Saybrook is mostly built out. Hamburg Cove is another area where development is likely. The area south of I-95 is fully developed.

The four towns in the Lyme area are examining alternatives to sewer systems. The town of Chester is planning to hook into the Deep River system. The service area will not extend beyond the town boundary currently shown in brown.

The rail corridor that passes through the region connects the historic commercial centers of the towns. I-95 was originally constructed to bypass more urban areas. The DOT has long-range plans to widen I-95. A railroad line owned by the DEP runs along the west side of the river and is currently used for tourist trains and the transportation of coal.

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Governments Plan for Development of Most Land Vulnerable to Rising Sea (PDF, 7 pp., 1.3 MB) was originally published in Environmental Research Letters , Issue 3, Volume 4 (2009).

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