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Fact sheets help local CT leaders answer questions about climate change

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Questions poured in by the dozens after the morning session of the 2015 Adapt CT Legal Workshop – six pages in fact.

“After the lunch break, we asked people to ask questions in a box, and we covered some of them in large roundtables in the afternoon,” recalls Juliana Barrett, coastal habitat specialist from the Connecticut Sea Grant, Associate Extension Educator with the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, and one of the workshop organizers. “But we had received a lot of questions.”

The room filled with state and municipal officials had come to explore the complex legal conundrums resulting from the effects of climate change, primarily sea level rise and stronger and more frequent storms causing increased flooding, property damage and loss, among other impacts. “Tip of the iceberg” is perhaps the metaphor that comes to mind, even as icebergs shrink with climate change.

Workshop participants asked questions such as:

How does the state/local government begin to enact meaningful regulations that address climate change, knowing that they will affect property rights?

Does beach nourishment alter property boundaries?

Is there a legal responsibility to a city for identifying properties in a Coastal Resilience Plan that may be flooded in the future by sea level rise?

The workshop was part of a series on climate adaptation organized by Connecticut Sea Grant and the UConn Center for Land Use Education and Research, known as CLEAR, through their joint organization, Adapt CT. Legal issues have emerged glaringly as another area is reshaped by the wide range of climate change, as the effects are felt in fisheries, agriculture, health, infrastructure, wildlife and economies.

“At first, I didn’t know it was going to be such a problem,” Barrett says. “But then I saw it was going to be a permanent problem, and we had to get ahead of it.”

Falcon Road in Guilford was closed for more than six months in 2019 after flooding from several storms and underwent major reconstruction. Many coastal cities must decide whether and how to make costly repairs to frequently flooded roads or abandon them, and the legal ramifications of those decisions (Judy Benson/Connecticut Sea Grant Photo).

This realization led Barrett and co-organizer Bruce Hyde of CLEAR to begin working with the Marine Affairs Institute at Roger Williams University School of Law, home of the Rhode Island Sea Grant Legal Program which serves Sea Grant programs throughout the North-east. The partnership has agreed to produce the series of Legal Issues in the Age of Climate Adaptation Fact Sheets on specific issues in Connecticut case law and policy, researched and written by Canadian Law Fellows. Rhode Island Sea Grant supervised by staff attorneys. Connecticut Sea Grant supported the work of the Law Fellows, and each project produced three to six pages of content followed by several pages of citations and other references.

The sixth and most recent fact sheet in the series, “Flooding, Eminent Domain and Government Authority” was posted on the Connecticut Sea Grant and Adapt CT websites in early January, building on a virtual retirement workshop managed in November 2020. Several in-individual workshops completed the previous sheets.

Climate change is a dynamic field, but so is law and policy, so we’re used to changing areas of practice,” says Julia Wyman, director of the Marine Affairs Institute and the Rhode Island Sea Grant Legal Program. . “Connecticut Sea Grant contacted us directly with their questions. We worked on the cards, and the workshops, for several years. It was a really fun opportunity to dig deeper into the issues surrounding climate change.

Wyman said the fact sheets are a “snapshot in time” based on the best scientific and legal research available at the time of their writing.

“Over time,” she says, “it is likely that the science, the impacts of climate change, and the laws and policies around them will change. If our partners need to update them in the future, we are open to working on updates.

The titles of the first five fact sheets, like that of the sixth fact sheet, signal the intriguing, complex and varied challenges facing local and state officials and others:

For law fellows and staff attorneys at the Institute of Maritime Affairs, the factsheet project was an opportunity to apply their legal skills to help answer some real-world questions. For the road flooding fact sheet, for example, Barrett led one of the law fellows on a tour of problem roads in Madison, Old Saybrook and other coastal towns.

“It was a great opportunity for us to partner with Connecticut Sea Grant and CLEAR from UConn,” Wyman says. “Our staff and students have enjoyed working with the team, attending and presenting workshops, and generally learning about Connecticut’s climate change law.”

Wyman said his institute has done several projects on climate change issues, including producing similar legal fact sheets for Rhode Island Sea Grant and another series for other New England states.

“We are always happy to partner with other Sea Grant programs and other coastal constituents on their coastal law and policy issues,” says Wyman.

Barrett said the Connecticut Sea Grant fact sheets have been well received, prompting many of last year’s 3,740 visits to the Adapt CT website, where the materials can be downloaded. While most users are city officials, private landowners also have access.

“As situations and topics arise, I would like this partnership with the Marine Affairs Institute/Rhode Island Sea Grant Legal Program to continue,” Barrett says. “We get a really solid and useful product for our stakeholders.”

Connecticut Sea Grant, located on the UConn Avery Point campus, is a state and federal partnership through UConn and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Sea Grant College Program.