2017 Media Award

Awardee: Jan Ellen Spiegel, Freelance Journalist-The Connecticut Mirror

Our Chapter presents this award infrequently due to the lack of attention to many of the causes that are important to us. Mounting competition between print and electronic media has changed how we stay informed—how we consume information and choose entertainment. The need to maintain readership and capture advertiser dollars has changed how current events are being covered and how they are portrayed. As planners, given our diverse responsibilities and chaotic work schedules, it is a challenge to stay informed at the state level and we are often hard pressed to find print or digital media coverage of things relevant to us not to mention topics that inform and educate the general public.

If it was not for this year’s recipient, we would have missed relevant and insightful coverage of many of the topics we grapple with on a consistent basis. Jan Ellen Spiegel is a free-lance journalist who has won awards for her reporting on energy, environment and food and agriculture. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. As a freelance reporter, her stories have appeared in The New York Times and The Boston Globe. Here in Connecticut we know her best for her work appearing in the Connecticut Mirror. A few notable titles include:

  • A shifting ground for artificial turf in Connecticut
  • CT works on a new energy strategy as old one misses the mark
  • Farm bill cuts likely to bring pain to more than Connecticut’s farmers
  • Looks like an onion skin, but it could be electricity?
  • No fracking in Connecticut, but what about its waste?
  • Water contamination from horse manure is no joke
  • Beneath the waves, climate change puts marine life on the move
  • Climate Change Threatens Connecticut’s Vital Shoreline Rail
  • New farmland harvest – solar energy – creating political sparks

Jan’s coverage is unique and refreshing, as it is timely and informative. She has an innate understanding of environmental policies and programs, regulations, and trends and her ability to educate and captivate is greatly appreciated by our Chapter.

2017 Sustainability Award

Awardee: O & G Industries- Quarry #5 New Milford Bat Habitat Creation

It is often hard for us planners to think beyond the 10-year horizon. For one of Connecticut’s well-known family-run businesses, thinking about 10-20 years ahead is just good planning.

The limestone quarry near Boardman’s Bridge Road in New Milford has been active since the late 1800s. Some of the earliest rock quarrying led to the development of a tunnel used to mine and extract rock within a portion of the property. The tunnel has evolved over time to serve as a bat habitat for various species particularly the brown bat which appears to be more resistant to the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome which has been killing bats at an alarming rate in the eastern United States.

O&G Industries owns the quarry and operates a crushed rock and sand operation there. It is projected that the land area and reserves that contain the bat tunnel will not be mined for approximately another 15 years. Thus far, O & G has contained its operations to avoid the tunnel and protect the bat population, but recognized the need to proactively plan for the future.

Through a comprehensive, long-term mining and reclamation plan for the 342-acre quarry, O&G planned, designed and constructed an alternative to the existing bat habitat well in advance of future mining activity. The new habitat consists of a 40-foot long tunnel approximately six feet wide and seven feet tall that feeds into underground chamber 17 feet wide, 10 feet deep and 15 feet high.

O&G worked closely with biologists from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and retained the services of an underground mining engineer and a contractor specializing in tunnel drilling and blasting to ensure the new cave reflected the humidity, temperature, air circulation and other factors that provide a favorable habitat for the bats. The work was completed this summer and the CTDEEP will monitor activity in hopes that bats will soon be using their new cave.

The hope is that the new digs will be used by both the bats already there, as well as bats who were historically there, including little brown bats, northern long-eared bats and tri-colored bats. Thanks to O & G’s long-term plan, the bats have plenty of time to discover and acclimate to their new home.

The Chapter recognizes O & G for its long-term planning efforts and commitment to sustaining critical bat habitat. We look forward to a successful relocation.

2017 Transparency Award

Awardees: Town of Windsor- Planning & Zoning Information Accessibility

In this ever-evolving digital age, when residents and developers are looking for immediate answers, and meeting the diverse demands and expectations of those we serve seems to be an endless and exasperating daily challenge, the Town of Windsor’s Planning Department has redefined accountability, accessibility and transparency.

Through the use of a digital platform, planning, zoning and development-related information is available in a completely straightforward and intuitive manner. Regardless of education level, motive, or perspective, the Town has provided unprecedented access to information.
While most communities are satisfied with populating websites with basic and cursory information, Windsor provides a one-stop shop for all things planning and zoning. In addition to contact information and documents, the website provides:

  • In-depth information on boards and commissions and processes;
  • Fillable application forms, application checklists, maps, and a price guide;
  • Interactive citizens guides;
  • A comprehensive list of frequently asked questions in numerous categories from agricultural uses to property blight;
  • A randomized series of “Did you know?” blurbs at the bottom of every page that call residents’ attention to issues from energy conservation to non-point pollution; and
  • Pending applications and representative plan sheets, linked to our public hearing signs using Quick Response (QR) codes—those black squares arranged in a square grid on a white background—to give residents an instant response to inquiries about a pending hearing.
  • Hyperlinks are provided as well for easy access to other agencies at the local, regional and state.
  • Interactive guides that are helpful to both residents and applicants.

Its latest and proudest achievement has been the annotation of their zoning regulations – the first of their kind in Connecticut. This user-friendly set of regulations has been designed to include sidebars and annotations to further illustrate the regulation and to help explain what can be complex or unusual terms. Cautionary notes have been added to alert applicants and residents to common pitfalls and legal issues that may cause delays. Special attention and instruction is given to make navigation within the regulation as seamless as possible.
The Windsor Planning Department has created a system that portrays planning and zoning information in a way that makes it relevant and understandable rather than though it was a foreign language. It has also eliminated the guess work that often plagues developers and applicants by providing access to an abundance of information in a manner that clearly establishes expectations and eliminates animosity that is often fueled by what some may consider an intentional lack of clarity.

There is no question that these digital improvements will empower its citizenry while imparting fairness to applicants. Ultimately, it may alleviate the daily demands of working the counter, but the real benefit lies in the conceivable hundreds of people seeking information and wanting to learn more that have access at their fingertips.
These efforts go beyond outreach and education. This year the Awards Committee aptly retitled the Public Outreach/Education Award typically given, to reflect the commendable efforts by the Town of Windsor to achieve complete transparency.

2017 Implementation Award

Awardees: Thames River Heritage Park

The idea of a heritage park on the Thames River dates back to 1966, when the Southern Connecticut Regional Planning Agency proposed a “Marine Heritage Area”. Legislation was adopted in 1987 to create a statewide heritage park system with the Thames River Estuary designated as a test site, but it took nearly fifty years for “One River. A Thousand Stories” to become a reality.

Since those early years, tourism has been recognized as a significant economic development driver. Heritage tourism is among the fastest growing segments of the tourism market, and visitors in this segment spend more than their non-heritage counterparts. Think: Boston’s Freedom Trail.

In the 20 years since heritage park designation more than $4 million in state funds were invested in the Thames park project, but never full implementation of the strategic plan – not until 2012 when the board of the Avery-Copp House Museum stepped up. The Board brought in The Yale Urban Design Workshop to prepare a more detailed plan, and assembled a Steering Committee to provide input into the plan.

As the Yale Urban Design Workshop’s plan started coming together, an effort was made to build relationships between stakeholder organizations. The Steering Committee presented the Park concept to the public in a very positive way, to get state and local officials on board and to engage stakeholders as quickly as possible. This effort entailed securing letters of support, holding public and one-on-one meetings, and meeting with the editorial board of the regional newspaper on multiple occasions. Twenty-nine partner organizations provided letters of support for the Park and were printed as an appendix to the Heritage Park Plan.

During the first two weekends of September 2014, the Steering Committee conducted a water taxi demonstration to test the viability of ferry service across the Thames River. The committee raised funds, worked with the Southeastern CT Council of Governments to create a service agreement with Cross Sound Ferry to operate the taxi. They placed advertisements, coordinated signage, secured permission from the required agencies, secured a vessel from Mystic Seaport, and filled 60 shifts of volunteers.

The Steering Committee eventually evolved into a transition team operating under an agreement with CT DEEP. The transition team incorporated the non-profit Thames River Heritage Park Foundation, created by-laws and established a Board of Directors. The initial Board was carefully crafted to include representation from all the major parties whose support was needed for the Park to be successful. Other community leaders were invited to be part of the Water Taxi Committee and the Marketing Committee.

The Thames River Heritage Park Foundation now oversees development of the Park following the Heritage Park Plan which YUDW completed in April 2015. The Plan’s recommendations are centered around a heritage park which, unlike conventional state parks, ties together independent heritage institutions, existing state parks, historic districts, local businesses and educational partners. Principal recommendations address four core areas: Park Organization, Park Experiences, Education and Economic Development.

Since 2015 the Park has run a seasonal water taxi using two surplus US Navy vessels. Running on a one-hour loop, the taxis connect the three Heritage Park anchors—Fort Trumbull State Park, the Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park, and the New London waterfront in front of historic Union Station. A full color Park Map & Guide has been created, and there is a downloadable app that provides an audio tour.

The Board continues to work on building collaborative relationships to nurture cross promotion, joint programming and mutual benefit. One of the most beneficial outcomes has been the relationship that has grown between the host municipalities – The City of Groton, the Town of Groton and the City of New London. This effort has fostered the notion that the river now unifies rather than divides. This mindset is beginning to take hold in other ways as the three municipalities jointly pursue new initiatives and think beyond their own boundaries.
The Thames River Heritage Park has the potential to make the Thames region a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Enriching each local partner by making it part of a larger network, the park defines the region’s cultural identity, encourages sustainable tourism, and with minimal investment, produces a substantial regional economic impact.
2017 Community Development Award

Awardees: Shoreline Basic Needs Task Force – Housing Committee

The Shoreline Basic Needs Task Force is a collaboration of community groups and concerned people, working to affect change that increases self-sufficiency among vulnerable individuals and families in need along the Connecticut Shoreline. Eleven communities from three counties make up the taskforce: Madison, Killingworth, Clinton, Westbrook, Old Saybrook, Chester, Deep River, Essex, Lyme and Old Lyme.

The Shoreline Basic Needs Task Force was founded in 2012. The inception of the Task Force was organic and really started as a result of a forum that The Shoreline Soup Kitchens and Pantries put together about “basic needs” in lower Middlesex County and how to best respond. Following that forum, a group of concerned citizens and groups came together as The Shoreline Basic Needs Task Force. Since 2012 three targeted Action Teams have been developed within the Task Force: The Housing Action Team, The Food Security Team and the Economic Security Team. Each of the three Teams engage in different ways to work with the various communities throughout the year with their focus area in mind.

A large part of the data and research that is utilized by the Teams comes from the United Way’s ALICE research that is done annually by Rutgers University. The ALICE project, the acronym standing for Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed, created a series of new, standardized measurements that provide a broader picture of financial insecurity than outdated federal poverty guidelines. Many times, the ALICE population is referred to as the “working poor.” It represents the growing number of individuals and families who are working, but are unable to afford the basic necessities of housing, food, child care, health care, and transportation. For most families, regardless of income, housing is the largest and least flexible expense. ALICE households in Connecticut make up about 27 percent of all households in the state, in addition to the 11 percent of Connecticut households that are in poverty.

The Shoreline Basic Needs Task Force used the Alice Report to create a highly effective visual marketing campaign which includes a faceless Alice silhouette, representing the hidden and unknown population in need. “Alice” attends all community outreach activities. “I met Alice” stickers are given to each the community as they meet Alice through a series of Alice postcards that tell the real stories of local “Alices” who use a template developed to enable people to share their personal stories. These marketing campaigns are used by all three Teams and have reached thousands of community members so far in our education process. Two Facebook pages were created “Alice on the Shoreline” that documents the community engagements that Team members incorporate Alice in to and “Shoreline Basic Needs Task Force” which documents meeting announcements, the meeting notes from each of the three Teams and relative stories from different media sources.

All three Teams work to facilitate conversations in person, on the radio, in the newspapers, in large community venues like concerts or farmers markets and through different “Alice” campaigns in order to raise awareness of who is Alice, that there are numerous Alice households in our communities, to find ways to be more caring neighbors and to break down barriers and ill-conceived notions of who the ALICE population.

Specifically, relevant to planners and our Chapter, the Housing Action Committee has worked toward three goals:

  • Education, advocacy and support of community development that focuses on increasing the number of attainable housing units on the shoreline.
  • Brainstorming with planning and zoning commissions on ways a supply of attainable housing can be integrated in to the shoreline towns.
  • Help facilitate and support Plans of Conservation & Development that support housing that is attainable to those households earning below 60% AMI in the eleven shoreline towns.

Aside from its marketing campaign, the Housing Committee continues to work directly with selectmen, members of planning and zoning, landlords and builders, as well as provide advocacy at the State level to maintain and increase affordable housing.
The Chapter is pleased to recognize the Shoreline Basic Needs Task Force Housing Action Committee for its constructive, collaborative and effective efforts to dispel the myths of affordable housing and overcome development roadblocks to achieving housing options.

The Awards Committee found the committee’s work not just relevant and sorely needed, but as we look to the future perhaps it can continue as a partner with CCAPA in a more formalize manner.