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Gagnon v. Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Com'n of Town of Bristol

Supreme Court of Connecticut

February 6, 1990

Dorothy GAGNON
v.
INLAND WETLANDS AND WATERCOURSES COMMISSION OF the TOWN OF BRISTOL et al.

Argued Dec. 13, 1989.

Page 1095

Alfred F. Morrocco, Jr., with whom was Roger E. Chiasson II, Bristol, for appellants (defendant Jon Pose et al.).

JoAnn Paul, Manchester, for appellee (plaintiff).

Before PETERS, C.J., and SHEA, COVELLO, HULL and SANTANIELLO, JJ.

[213 Conn. 605] HULL, Judge.

The sole issue in this administrative appeal is whether the Superior Court is required to search the record of an inland wetlands commission hearing to determine if there is an adequate basis for the action taken by that commission, where the commission failed to state upon the record the reason for its decision. We hold that the long established rule requiring such a search of the record in appeals from planning and zoning authorities applies with equal force to an appeal from an inland wetlands commission. Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court erred in sustaining the plaintiff's appeal from the decision of the inland wetlands commission on the sole ground that the commission failed to state upon the record the reason for its decision.

On April 6, 1988, the individual defendants Jon Pose, Dominic Pietrofesa, Josephine Pietrofesa and James Session, filed an application for a wetlands permit with the wetlands commission of the city of Bristol. [1] The applicants wanted to subdivide their real estate. The city planning commission required that a report from the wetlands commission be attached to the subdivision application. Hearings on this matter were held on April 25, 1988, and May 16, 1988, by the wetlands commission, which approved the application following the latter hearing. The plaintiff, Dorothy Gagnon, thereafter appealed this decision to the Superior Court. The trial court examined the record of the hearings Before the commission and found that the commission had not stated upon the record the basis for its approval of the application. Based upon this reason solely the court sustained the plaintiff's appeal. The defendant Jon M. Pose [213 Conn. 606] et al. (defendants) appealed from the judgment to the Appellate Court and we transferred the case to this court pursuant to Practice Book § 4023.

The defendants claim on appeal that the trial court erred by not searching the record of the May 16, 1988 hearings to ascertain the basis for the commission's approval of the defendants' application. The defendants further claim that had the trial court adequately searched the record, it would have found sufficient reason to warrant approval of the application. We agree that the trial court's failure to search the record was error, and remand this case to the trial court for further proceedings to determine whether the record discloses adequate reasons for the commission's decision.

The defendants first contend that, in an appeal from a decision of an inland wetlands commission, a trial court must search the record of the hearings Before that commission to determine the basis for the agency's decision. In support of this contention, the defendants rely entirely on case law mandating such a search in appeals from decisions of planning and zoning authorities. The basis for the defendants' reliance on these cases is the similarity in the language of the statutes governing inland wetlands agencies; General Statutes §§ 22a-42 through 22a-45; and the statutes governing planning and zoning agencies. General Statutes §§ 8-1 through 8-30a.

General Statutes § 22a-42a(d) provides in pertinent part: "In granting ... any permit for a regulated activity the inland wetlands agency shall consider the factors set forth in section 22a-41, and such agency shall state upon the record the reasons

Page 1096

for its decision." [2] [213 Conn. 607] (Emphasis added.) Planning and zoning agencies are bound by similar statutory language: 'Whenever such [zoning] commission makes any change in a regulation or boundary it shall state upon its records the reason why such change is made ..."; General Statutes § 8-3(c); "[w]henever a [zoning] commission grants or denies a special permit or special exception, it shall state upon its records the reason for its decision ..."; General Statutes § 8-3c(b); "[w]henever a zoning board of appeals grants or denies any special exception or variance in the zoning regulations ... it shall state upon its records the reason for its decision ..."; General Statutes § 8-7; "[t]he grounds for [the planning commission's] action [concerning applications for subdivision approval] shall be stated in the records of the commission ..."; General Statutes § 8-26; and "[w]henever a [planning] commission grants or denies a special permit or special exception, it shall state upon its records the reason for its decision." General Statutes § 8-26e.

Notwithstanding this statutory language, our case law clearly requires the trial court, in appeals from planning and zoning authorities, to search the record to [213 Conn. 608] determine the basis for decisions made by those authorities. In Parks v. Planning & Zoning Commission, 178 Conn. 657, 661-62, 425 A.2d 100 (1979), we said that "[t]he [planning and zoning] commission's failure to state on the record the reasons for its actions, in disregard of General Statutes § 8-3, renders appellate review more cumbersome, in that the trial court must search the entire record to find a basis for the commission's decision...." We further stated that "[i]f any reason culled from the record demonstrates a real or reasonable relationship to the general welfare of the community, the decision of the commission must be upheld." (Emphasis in original.) Id., at 662-63, 425 A.2d 100. We have enunciated this duty of a trial court with respect to appeals from zoning boards in a long line of cases. See, e.g., A.P. & W. Holding Corporation v. Planning & Zoning Board, 167 Conn. 182, 186, 355 A.2d 91 (1974); Morningside Assn. v. Planning & Zoning Board, 162 Conn. 154, 156, 292 A.2d 893 (1972).

The Appellate Court applied the same rule to a review of the decision of a zoning board of appeals in Stankiewicz v. Zoning Board of Appeals, 15 Conn.App. 729, 732, 546 A.2d 919 (1988). On certification to this court the issue was limited to the following question: "Did the Appellate Court err in concluding that if a zoning board gives inadequate reasons for granting a variance, as opposed to giving no reasons whatever, the trial court may search the record to determine whether basis exists for the action taken?" (Emphasis in original.) Stankiewicz v. Zoning Board of Appeals, 211 Conn. 76, 77-78, 556 A.2d 1024 (1989). We affirmed the Appellate Court's opinion, per curiam. Id.

Finally, in Kaeser v. Conservation Commission, 20 Conn.App. 309, 311, 567 A.2d 383 (1989), the Appellate Court considered exactly the same issue as that raised in this case. The plaintiffs in Kaeser appealed

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from the judgment of the trial court dismissing their [213 Conn. 609] appeal from the decision of the conservation commission of the town of Easton, acting as the local inland wetlands agency. Id., at 310, 567 A.2d 383. The plaintiffs claimed that the reason given by the conservation commission for denying the plaintiffs' application was merely a conclusory statement and not a reason for denying a permit. Id., at 311, 567 A.2d 383. In upholding the trial court's judgment, the Appellate Court said that "[e]ven if that were so, the reviewing court may ' "search the record for reasons to support the agency's decision." ' " Id., quoting Huck v. Inland Wetlands & Watercourses Agency, 203 Conn. 525, 541, 525 A.2d 940 (1987). Later in Kaeser, the Appellate Court fortified its statement that the reviewing ...


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