Wetlands board split headed back to selectmen Monday

Separating the Planning and Zoning Commission from the Inland Wetlands Board is a decision that voters might get to make in November after all.

The Charter Revision Commission voted July 30 to recommend splitting wetlands and zoning duties in its final report to the Board of Selectmen on possible changes to the town charter.

The selectmen narrowly voted 3-2 to axe the proposed wetlands board change at their July 25 meeting, which would have prevented the question to split the boards from going to voters in the fall.

The selectmen also voted to include conciliatory recommendations that the commission find a way to mandate environmental training for new commission members, and include information on the ballot explaining to voters that they are electing a candidate to serve three roles.

But the Charter Revision Commission rejected those suggestions.

“They put two items in here to sort of mollify people that support this,” said commissioner Ellen Burns. “Nothing that came back in [the proposed split] make sense to me based on our charter.”

The charter commission’s final report will go back to the selectmen on Aug. 13.

The selectmen then have the ability to vote line-by-line for or against the final recommended changes to the charter. Any suggestions struck from the final report by the selectmen can still go to the voters in November if the charter commission successfully petitions to put them on the ballot.

‘Town’s best interest’

The split was originally proposed by the town Conservation Commission. It was advanced forward by the Charter Revision Commission as part of its four-year review of possible changes to the town charter.

In a joint statement to The Press on Tuesday, July 31, the nine-members of the Conservation Commission said they were “highly disappointed” that the selectmen voted to deny the commission’s “reasoned recommendation that Ridgefield create an independent Inland Wetlands Board.”

“While the vote is not yet final, we believe firmly that the time has come to give the voters of Ridgefield the opportunity to review the arguments on both sides and decide whether the long-standing combined P&Z/IWB is still in the town’s best interest in terms of protection of our wetlands and watercourses,” the commission said. “As the buildable land in town continues to dwindle, and storm events become more intense, it is ever more critical that we have a board that is focused on this issue.”

The Conservation Commission sent the issue to the Charter Revision Commission in 2014, but the split was rejected by the commission after the selectmen turned it down.

Planning and Zoning Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti declined to comment for this article.

Elect or appoint?

The nine-member commission also reconsidered whether the split-off wetlands board should be made up of members who are elected or appointed, but the idea of appointing members was rejected in a 6-3 vote.

“I’ll say it again, it is a regulatory body,” said commissioner Patrick Walsh, who said he was concerned that an appointed body would have jurisdiction “over individual property rights.”

“I have a real issue with moving power from 18,000 people to five people,” he added, suggesting that the board members needed to be under the same pressure as “the general electorate.”

In a 6-3 vote, the commission decided to reject the selectmen’s recommendations. One commissioner, Joe Egan, flipped his vote after having previously voted against splitting the wetlands board away from planning and zoning.

“To me what the Board of Selectmen are asking is for one member of the commission to flip their vote,” Egan said, stating that although he’d voted with what the selectmen were suggesting before, he felt they were overstepping their bounds on principle. He also argued that the “political” ramifications of the decision should not fall on the charter revision commission.

Selectmen

First Selectman Rudy Marconi and Selectwoman Barbara Manners both voted in the minority to follow the recommendation of the Charter Revision Commission, at the June 25 selectmen’s meeting.

Manners argued that the two agencies should be split and that the members of the Inland Wetlands Board should be appointed. Doing so would allow the town to appoint qualified “scientists,” she said.

“My feeling was that if it’s going to remain elective, then it should remain as it is,” she said, echoing the Conservation Commission’s concern that as the amount of land up for development in town continues to shrink, the parcels that remain will likely contain more environmentally fragile land. Appointing scientists, she said, would be “farsighted and in the long term good for the town.”

But Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark said those same scientists could run for election on the Planning and Zoning Commission.

“It kind of hit me today, someone who is a scientist, or has that leaning, has to run for the Planning and Zoning Commission and Inland Wetlands Board,” she said. “That’s our form of government, and that’s very important … I would not support appointing, I would have to go to election.”

Why change?

Selectman Bob Hebert argued there was no need to change a system that has worked for the town for decades.

“They’ve proven their ability to defend their positions,” he said.

He noted that there were “no documented instances” that suggested the commission’s decisions as a wetlands board were not sound.

It was Selectman Steve Zemo who suggested that the the Charter Revision Commission should examine how training on aquifer protection could be mandated for all new commissioners.

Marconi argued that the decision on whether or not to separate should go to the voters.

“And I’m not just grandstanding … I just happen to believe in the voters of this town,” he said.

He said he was concerned that the commission’s current workload, including the increase in building applications once the town moratorium on state-protected affordable housing developments expires in the fall, would prevent it from studying environmental risks the town faces — including the buildup of salt in clean water aquifers from the use of road salt.

“I think if we are going to separate, we should really look at a board made up of professionals,” Marconi said. He confirmed that he supports a wetlands board that is appointed, rather than elected.

“This isn’t something you look in the rearview mirror to see where you’ve been,” he told the Press on July 30, “you want to look ahead out the windshield.”

Manners also voiced her concerns.

“The reality is that more and more developers seem to be going onto the board,” she said. “There is an inherent conflict of interest between one and the other — between regulation and property rights.”

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