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Hunter Ridge, LLC v. Planning & Zoning Commission of Town of Newtown

Supreme Court of Connecticut

September 1, 2015

HUNTER RIDGE, LLC
v.
PLANNING AND ZONING COMMISSION OF THE TOWN OF NEWTOWN

Argued May 21, 2015.

Appeal from the decision of the defendant denying the plaintiff's application to subdivide certain of the plaintiff's real property, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Danbury, where the court, Mintz, J., granted the motion to intervene filed by Spencer Taylor; thereafter, the case was tried to the court, Sheedy, J., which remanded the case to the defendant for consideration of certain environmental issues raised by the intervenor; subsequently, the defendant made certain findings with respect to the environmental issues, and the case was returned to the court, Ozalis, J.; judgment for the intervenor, from which the plaintiff, on the granting of certification, appealed to the Appellate Court; thereafter, the court, Ozalis, J., awarded the intervenor certain additional costs, and the plaintiff filed a separate appeal to the Appellate Court; subsequently, the appeals were consolidated and transferred to this court.

SYLLABUS

The plaintiff, H, applied for a subdivision permit from the defendant planning and zoning commission, seeking to develop a parcel of land that borders a lake in Newtown. The commission denied the permit, and H appealed from the commission's denial to the trial court, claiming that the commission improperly applied the open space requirements of its regulations. After H filed its administrative appeal, S was granted permission by the trial court to intervene in the appeal pursuant to the provision (§ 22a-19 [a]) of the state Environmental Protection Act of 1971 in order to raise concerns related to the environmental impact of the proposed subdivision. S sought to present to the trial court additional evidence that had not been included in the administrative record. The trial court received the evidence, determined that S had made out a prima facie case on his environmental claims, and remanded the matter to the commission for further fact-finding relative to S's claims. After holding hearings, the commission concluded that H's proposed subdivision plan would not unreasonably pollute, impair or destroy the natural resources on the property. S disputed the commission's findings in the trial court, and the court issued a memorandum of decision setting aside the commission's findings and adjudicated the factual issues itself. The court, finding that the proposed subdivision would have an unreasonable impact on the environment, enjoined H from developing a portion of the property, and rendered judgment in favor S and awarded S certain costs related to his expert witness fees. H appealed separately from the judgment in favor of S and from the award of costs to S, claiming that the provision (§ 22a-18) of the Environmental Protection Act of 1971 that provides a trial court with the authority to grant equitable relief did not give the trial court the authority to enter an injunction in the context of a zoning appeal, that the court improperly substituted its judgment on issues of fact for that of the commission, and that the court's award of costs to S was improper. Held that the trial court improperly concluded that it had independent authority under § 22a-18 to enter an injunction in a zoning appeal involving an intervention pursuant to § 22a-19, and substituted its judgment for that of the zoning commission on the factual issues raised by S, a trial court having the power to grant equitable relief or the authority to adjudicate facts relating to environmental matters raised by an intervenor only if the underlying proceeding gives the trial court such power or authority, and, here, in a zoning appeal, the trial court was strictly constrained by statute (§ 8-8 [ l ]) and the substantial evidence rule to reviewing the validity of the commission's decision, and an intervening party, like S here, may file an independent action for declaratory or equitable relief pursuant to statute (§ 22a-16); furthermore, in light of this court's holding that the trial court could not properly have awarded equitable relief to S, this court concluded that the trial court could not properly have awarded S his costs pursuant to § 22a-18 (e).

Robert H. Hall, for the appellant (plaintiff).

Erick M. Sandler, with whom were Joseph L. Hammer and, on the brief, John W. Cerreta, for the appellee (intervenor Spencer Taylor).

Robert A. Fuller, for the appellee (defendant).

Rogers, C. J., and Palmer, Zarella, Eveleigh, McDonald, Espinosa and Robinson, Js. McDONALD, J. In this opinion the other justices concurred.

OPINION

Page 534

[318 Conn. 433] McDONALD, J.

The Environmental Protection Act of 1971 (act)[1] expresses a state policy favoring the protection and preservation of the state's natural resources; General Statutes § 22a-15; and grants all persons access to the courts to protect these resources from unreasonable pollution. General Statutes § 22a-16. A person may seek to protect the public trust in the state's natural resources either by bringing an independent action for [318 Conn. 434] declaratory and equitable relief pursuant to § 22a-16, or by intervening in an existing " administrative, licensing or other proceeding" that may impact natural resources. General Statutes § 22a-19 (a) (1).[2] The principal issue presented in these appeals concerns a section of the act that allows a court to enter equitable relief, such as an injunction, when and to the extent necessary to prevent unreasonable pollution. General Statutes § 22a-18 (a). We are asked whether the grant of equitable power to the courts in § 22a-18 (a) applies to administrative and other proceedings in which an intervenor has raised environmental concerns pursuant to § 22a-19. We conclude that it does not.

I

The plaintiff, Hunter Ridge, LLC (Hunter Ridge), applied for a subdivision permit from the defendant, the Planning and Zoning Commission (commission) of the Town of Newtown (town), seeking to develop a parcel of land that borders Taunton Lake (lake). The commission denied the application on the ground that Hunter Ridge's subdivision plan did not meet the open space requirements in the town's subdivision regulations. Hunter Ridge appealed from the commission's denial to the trial court, claiming that the commission improperly applied the open space requirements, that the requirements were unenforceable, and that the town's demand for open space amounted to a taking without compensation.

After Hunter Ridge filed its administrative appeal, Spencer Taylor (intervenor) intervened in the appeal to the trial court pursuant to § 22a-19 (a), raising concerns related to the environmental impact of the

Page 535

proposed subdivision. In support of his environmental claims, the [318 Conn. 435] intervenor sought permission to present to the trial court additional evidence that was not included in the administrative record. The trial court received the evidence, decided that the intervenor had made out a prima facie case on his environmental claims, and then remanded the matter back to the commission for further fact-finding relative to the intervenor's claims. After holding hearings, the commission responded to the trial court's request for fact-finding, concluding that, subject to certain conditions, Hunter Ridge's proposed subdivision plan would not " unreasonably pollute, impair or destroy the natural resources on the property."

Returning to the trial court, the intervenor disputed the validity of the commission's findings, and the trial court ultimately issued a memorandum of decision in which the court set aside the commission's findings and adjudicated the factual issues itself. In its memorandum, the court found that the proposed subdivision would have an unreasonable impact on the natural resources of the property and the greater ecosystem surrounding the lake, and it enjoined Hunter Ridge from developing a portion of its property without prior approval from the court or without meeting certain conditions contained in the court's order. The trial court later rendered judgment in favor of the intervenor and subsequently awarded him costs pertaining to his expert witness fees, from which the plaintiff filed separate appeals. The trial court's memorandum of decision and judgment did not address Hunter Ridge's underlying claims regarding the town's open space requirements, and we deem those claims to have been implicitly rejected by the trial court's decision forbidding Hunter Ridge's proposed development from going forward because of its potential environmental impact.

Hunter Ridge appealed from the trial court's decisions to the Appellate Court, and we transferred the appeals to this court pursuant to General Statutes § 51-199 (c) [318 Conn. 436] and Practice Book § 65-1. On appeal, Hunter Ridge claims, among other things, that (1) the act does not give the trial court authority to enter an injunction in the context of a zoning appeal; (2) the court improperly substituted its judgment on issues of ...


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