Feinson v. Conservation Commission

In Feinson v. Conservation Commission, 180 Conn. 421, 429 A.2d 910 (1980), the plaintiff property owner appealed from the denial of his application to conduct regulated activity in an inland wetland. Id., at 422. The plaintiff's expert produced a report and testified before the defendant commission. Id., at 423. A member of the commission, who was not an engineer, articulated concerns of a possible public health hazard, and the commission relied heavily on that statement in denying the application. Id., at 426-27. The trial court sustained the appeal and ordered the application to be approved. Id., at 422. The Connecticut Supreme Court, reviewing the record, held that the trial court properly sustained the appeal on the merits. The Court also held that the trial court improperly ordered the commission to approve the application. Feinson v. Conservation Commission, supra, 180 Conn. at 429-30. The proper action was to remand the matter for further consideration. Id. The issue before the Supreme Court was "whether, on a subject as technically sophisticated and complex as pollution control, commissioners who have not been shown to possess expertise in this area may rely on their own knowledge, without more, in deciding to deny a license to conduct a regulated activity." Id., at 427. It is well established that lay members of a commission may rely on personal knowledge concerning matters readily within their knowledge, such as street safety, traffic congestion or local property values. Id. If, however, the commission relies on its special knowledge outside the scope of that of an ordinary trier of fact, it must afford the plaintiff a fair opportunity to respond. Id., 428-29. "The sparsity of reliable evidence in this record is underscored by the fact that the commission, in relying on its own knowledge and experience, acted in a manner which placed its data base beyond the plaintiff's scrutiny. Nowhere in the public hearing, or at any other time and place, was the plaintiff afforded a fair opportunity to hear the commission's fears and to attempt to allay them. . . . If an administrative agency chooses to rely on its own judgment, it has a responsibility to reveal publicly its special knowledge and experience, to give notice of the material facts that are critical to its decision, so that a person adversely affected thereby has an opportunity for rebuttal at an appropriate stage in the administrative proceedings." Id.