Planners argue against making separate Inland Wetlands Board

Citing facts and eschewing emotions, the Inland Wetlands Board and Planning and Zoning Commission presented its case to remain a joint board in front of the Charter Revision Commission on March 3.

“Comparing Ridgefield to other towns in the state with separate wetlands commissions, you can see we have a smaller average of disturbed wetlands per permit than all the separate boards statewide,” said town planner Betty Brosius. “We have been a very conservative board — as conservative as any in the state, and we compare extremely well to other towns with combined commissions.”

A 2004-05 study showed that joint wetlands and zoning commissions average around 0.5 acres of disturbed wetlands per permit, while separated commissions average about 0.23 acres.

Ridgefield’s board averaged 0.21 acres on the 10 wetland permit applications it reviewed in 2013.

“The results speak for themselves really,” said Vice Chairman Patrick Walsh. “The combined review works here in Ridgefield — there’s less environmental impact and damage to wetlands than other towns in the state. …

“You can’t get a more rigorous environmental review process than the one we have.”

Paul Jasinski, the chairman of the charter revision commission, received a recommendation from the Ridgefield Conservation Commission on Feb. 6 to separate the two boards, highlighting the fact that there are only seven combined boards across 169 municipalities in the state.

The others include Bridgeport, Manchester, Mansfield, New Haven, West Hartford, and Union. Union, with a population of 854, is the only community smaller than Ridgefield with a joint board.

“Due to time constraints and the need for specialized knowledge in each area, combined commissions have difficulty giving adequate attention to each of their component functions,” the conservation commission wrote. “The increased pressure of high density applications and development of more marginal land has increased the time required of the combined commission to review these more complex issues and make careful decisions.

“A separate IWB would attract volunteers with greater expertise in wetlands issues and without the additional burden of P&Z applications they may be more likely to avail themselves of related educational opportunities.”

The charter commission has invited the conservation commission to make its presentation Monday, March 17, before pushing toward a final decision on March 22.

“What else do we need to reach our conclusion?” asked charter commission member Richard Vazzanna. “The conservation commission is driving this petition, so we need to hear from them before there’s any ruling.”

Charter commission members pressed the planners about their system of checks and balances, which have been criticized by some residents who favor separation.

The Charter Revision Commission also asked questions about having additional scrutiny regarding wetlands applications, affordable housing and how it relates to wetlands decisions, and the possibility of fitting the conservation commission into the Inland Wetlands Board.

The commission discussed such topics as revisions made to the upland review area in 2005-06 and changes to the town’s open space regulations.

Five P&Z commissioners attended the meeting, along with Ms. Brosius, and four spoke in favor of having a joint board.

Commissioner John Katz, who has served on both boards since they were combined in 1974, noted that he “no longer objected to the concept of splitting.”

“I don’t feel that a separation would cause injury,” he said. “Right now the joint board benefits Ridgefield — there’s no testimony that the town’s not being served.

“However, the driver is administrative, not substantive,” he said. “As long as something benefits the town, it will be tabled, discussed and considered for approval — there’s a spillover of influence, and a separation will address this problem.”

Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti disagreed with this notion, citing recent controversial applications at the Elms property on Main Street, an affordable housing development at 86 Governor Street, and the expansion of the BMW of Ridgefield dealership on Route 7 as chief examples of how and why the combined review process works.

“The Elms would have taken several years if we were two separate entities,” she said. “If we were two separate entities, the wetlands would have said no to the application on its face value and may never have worked to come up with a revised plan.

“It’s speculative, but the wetlands could have said no and the applicant could have came back with an affordable application to planning and zoning and it would have passed,” she said. “We avoided a high-density project right in the middle of Main Street.”

The charter members asked commissioner Phil Mische his opinion. He told them the “most significant burden” the wetland board faces are applications that involve the state’s affordable housing law, 8-30g.

“All the zoning regulations are tossed out the window and the applicant is given a huge overhead,” he said. “There’s not much we can do, but most of our wetland applications are straightforward, and over the course of combined review, every single piece of the application is evaluated.”

Ms. Brosius said that separating the boards would cause a disruption in communication — something the current format avoids entirely.

“We’re all in the same room at the same time, so when a change comes both boards can see it and work from there without any delay,” she said. “There’s no bounce-back between boards, which happens in these cases of separation — feelings change at one meeting, challenges are made at another, and that leads to sloppy planning.”

With some conservationists fearing that the wetlands board has been made a lower priority in the current system, the charter revision commissioners asked about the structure of the two boards, mainly inquiring if there was any truth to the claim that planning and zoning takes precedence over wetlands issues.

“To go back to the Elms property again,” said Ms. Mucchetti, “the applicant was surprised the wetlands issues were so important and how comprehensive our combined review process was that they brought in an environmental consultant and worked with our peer review consultant on how to come up with a better plan.

“They had to resubmit the application a few times, but ultimately what passed was a redevelopment that fit with the zoning regulations and adhered to all environmental questions that were raised,” she said. “The Elms is a landmark to our historic downtown. …

“If we didn’t have combined review, who knows what would have happened.”

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  • -2

    “We avoided a high-density project right in the middle of Main Street.”

    Oh please. P&Z approved a16 condo project right in the middle of Main Street – WHICH DID NOT HAVE TO BE APPROVED AT ALL! P&Z now makes the statement they “avoided a high-density project”? 16 condos on our beautiful Main Street! That’s not a high-density project?

    I would have been happier if it was an 8-30g project, because it least the new affordable units would have counted towards our pending moratorium. But instead, we have condos going in and it doesn’t help with our quota at all. How is that better for us?

    I’d vote to split P&Z from the Wetlands Board. It says it right in this article, a separate Wetlands Board could have slowed the process down. Great! I for one have no interest in expediting the approval process for more condos in town.

  • -2

    “We avoided a high-density project right in the middle of Main Street.”

    Oh please. P&Z approved a16 condo project right in the middle of Main Street – WHICH DID NOT HAVE TO BE APPROVED AT ALL! P&Z now makes the statement they “avoided a high-density project”? 16 condos on our beautiful Main Street! That’s not a high-density project?

    I would have been happier if it was an 8-30g project, because it least the new affordable units would have counted towards our pending moratorium. But instead, we have condos going in and it doesn’t help with our quota at all. How is that better for us?

    I’d vote to split P&Z from the Wetlands Board. It says it right in this article, a separate Wetlands Board could have slowed the process down. Great! I for one have no interest in expediting the approval process for more condos in town.

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