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Conn. aims to guard shoreline in storms

The storm surge from Sandy in 2012 reached Seaside Park in Bridgeport, Conn. — a sign of flooding on the shoreline.

Jessica Hill,/Associated Press/file

The storm surge from Sandy in 2012 reached Seaside Park in Bridgeport, Conn. — a sign of flooding on the shoreline.

HARTFORD — Connecticut is taking small steps to change land-use regulations on the shoreline to avoid a repeat of the destruction caused by storms that have raked the Northeast.

State Senator Edward Meyer, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Environment Committee, said lawmakers sidestepped a bigger issue of whether the state should order municipalities to change building code rules or otherwise tangle with local officials over home rule.

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‘‘We have ducked that pretty much,’’ he said.

Legislators are considering four bills that would change how property owners and local officials treat Connecticut’s shoreline.

One measure would require more stringent water treatment plant design to qualify for state funding. The requirement is intended to make sure that treatment plants can withstand storms and do not spill wastewater into Long Island Sound or other bodies of water.

Another bill would require officials to consider a projected rise in the sea level of 2 inches to 5 inches per decade in planning for emergencies, evacuations, and natural disasters. A third measure calls for studying information from federal agencies and other coastal states to establish a guide for Connecticut.

Instead of establishing new rules for construction and other activities, lawmakers are seeking advice on best practices from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, federal officials and other coastal states, he said.

‘We do need to learn a lot more about what techniques work better.’

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A fourth bill would require state environmental officials and the University of Connecticut to submit a plan to the Legislature establishing a Connecticut Center for Coasts that would collect and analyze data to help protect the environment from future storms and the effect of rising sea levels.

‘‘I would characterize it as a conservative, initial approach,’’ said Meyer, Democrat of Guilford.

About 3,000 homes in Connecticut were damaged by Hurricane Sandy in October. Even before Sandy struck the region, a task force was set up in February 2012 in response to Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 and a freak winter nor’easter the following October. The legislation is based on recommendations by the panel.

Dan Esty, Connecticut’s environmental commissioner, told the task force that the state must determine how to encourage continued use of Long Island Sound while preparing for the impacts of what probably will be frequent and severe storms.

In a dire warning, Esty said forecasting models for the Northeast show the sea level may rise between 4 inches and a foot by 2050 and 1 to 2 feet by 2080 or sooner.

‘‘While the range of these numbers reflects scientific uncertainty, that should not be a reason for inaction,’’ he told lawmakers last month.

David Sutherland, director of government relations at the Nature Conservancy, a member of the task force, said the legislation is a ‘‘very good start.’’ But Connecticut and other coastal states are hampered by a lack of money that he said could be spent to restore tidal marshes and bolster dune systems.

The proposals to study information gathered by the federal government and other states and establish a center at UConn are important as Connecticut begins to adjust land-use rules, he said.

‘‘We do need to learn a lot more about what techniques work better than others along the shoreline,’’ he said.

Jennifer O’Donnell, a member of the task force and principal engineer at Coastal Ocean Analytics, an environmental consulting firm, said she would have preferred stronger legislation but lawmakers are aware ‘‘of what are reasonable laws and what could pass the legislature.’’

Meyer said state legislators face resistance from local officials who are uneasy with stronger land-use rules they see as a threat to significant property tax revenue.

‘‘I hear town officials in my district saying, ‘Don’t mandate that we build back because our tax revenue comes from those structures on the coast,’ ’’ he said.

Representative James Albis, the House chairman of the Environment Committee, said the legislation is just a start.

‘‘Our work isn’t even close to being finished,’’ he said.

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