Aquifer protection: Hearing unanimously favors wetlands board
Inland Wetlands Board — 23. Planning and Zoning Commission — 0.
That was the scoring on how public hearing speakers came down on the question of which town agency should perform the duties of the Aquifer Protection Agency.
“Aquifer protection and wetlands protection are so intrinsically entwined you can’t separate them,” said Nevin Dubin of 36 Webster Road.
“We’re facing an environmental future that is very different from what we knew about even 10 years ago,” said Angela Liptak. “... Water is going to be the most precious resource for humans going forward.”
David Tatge, a Democratic candidate for the new Inland Wetlands Board in November’s election, said that the groundwater in aquifers and the surface water in wetlands and watercourses were all part of connected “hydrological system,” so it makes sense to have the wetlands board oversee aquifers, as well.
“The hydrological system is a system,” he said. “... Surface water and groundwater are two parts of the system … And it matters that they be treated in a unified fashion … Surface water and groundwater are simply two manifestations of a single water resource.”
The public hearing on Aug. 21, had 25 people speak — two didn’t come down on one side or the other.
The discussion set the stage for a Sept. 4 town meeting, at which townspeople will vote on whether the Aquifer Protection Agency should remain with the Planning and Zoning Commission — which has overseen aquifers in town since 1990 — or be transferred to the new separate Inland Wetlands Board created in a charter change approved last year.
The new board will be populated with new members in this November’s election.
‘A or B’
First Selectman Rudy Marconi affirmed that the selectmen intended to move ahead with town meeting — at least, in part, so candidates in this fall’s election will know which agency will have responsibility for aquifers.
“It’ll be an ‘A’ or ‘B’ vote,” Marconi said.
He said the meeting would be Wednesday, Sept 4, starting at 7:30, in the Veterans Park auditorium — although there was some talk during the selectmen’s meeting that followed the hearing of seeking another location for town meeting, since Veterans Park was hot with no air conditioning.
Joe Savino, a Republican candidate for the Board of Selectmen, asked if absentee ballots would be available for people who might be away Sept. 4 — the Wednesday after Labor Day weekend.
“I’d have to check with town counsel,” Marconi said. “Absentees at a town meeting. We’ve never done that.”
Like many of the evening’s 25 speakers, Savino cited the November 2018 approval of a charter change to separate the Inland Wetlands Board from the Planning and Zoning Commission as evidence of voters’ intent to move responsibility for aquifer protection from P&Z to the new wetlands board.
“I don’t see this as complicated. You’ve got a board of very highly qualified individuals that the Republican Town Committee and Democratic Town Committee put together,” Savino said.
“... It’s time for the first selectman and the Board of Selectmen to listen to what 8,860 voters said last November.”
Republican Town Committee Chairwoman Hope Wise felt the aquifer protection issue had been decided when people voted to separate the wetlands board from the planning and zoning.
“I almost feel this is a do-over,” Wise said. “I don’t understand it. We voted on it — overwhelmingly approved.”
“Water is water,” said Democratic Town Committee Chairman Alex Harris. “Groundwater, surface water — they’re the same system. They need to be addressed and governed together … I think it’s very important the aquifer protection be with inland wetlands.”
Harris also gave the hearing a pep talk on the New England tradition of voters directly deciding important issues.
“This is citizen legislating,” he said. “And legislating you have to fix things, and pay attention to details…”
John McNicholas, noting his experience on Charter Revision commissions, backed putting the issue to town vote.
“We should let the voters decide whether aquifer protection goes to the Inland Wetlands Board,” he said.
Another charter revision veteran, Chuck Hancock of North Street, said that while there’d been a lot of discussion about the question of separating the Inland Wetlands Board from Planning and Zoning Commission, the future of the Aquifer Protection Agency didn’t get much attention.
He didn’t see why the question should be rushed to a Sept. 4 town meeting.
“It’s an important issue. It deserves time,” Hancock said.
Greg Kabasakkalian, a Republican candidate for Board of Finance, cited the wording of the current town ordinance giving aquifer protection duties to the Planning and Zoning Commission “in its capacity as the Inland Wetlands Board” — feeling this was clear enough. He also cited the charter change vote to create an independent wetlands board.
“It’s time to turn over that responsibility to our new — overwhelmingly elected, 3-to-1 majority — Inland Wetlands Board,” he said..
“Aquifer contamination in the country does occur,” said Bill Jaeger of 38 Circle Drive East.
He said the Planning and Zoning Commission’s quarterly meetings as the Aquifer Protection Agency had amounted to a total of 10 minutes.
The favored giving the new separate wetlands board that will be elected this fall oversight of aquifers as well as wetlands.
“The Inland Wetlands Board needs to have the ultimate say in these two areas,” he said.
“We’ve got two sets of aquifer protection regulations in our town,” said Conservation Commission Chairman Jim Coyle.
One set of rules governs the Oscaleta aquifer, which is a state-defined aquifer that feeds public drinking water supply wells. There are nine other locally defined aquifers protected by local aquifer regulations.
Coyle said the Conservation Commission backs putting aquifer protection in the hands of the new separate Inland Wetlands Board.
“It makes complete sense to our commission,” he said.
Coyle also said that when the Conservation Commission first began to push the idea of a charter change separating the Inland Wetlands Board from the Planning and Zoning Commission, a major goal was to get people with expertise on water resources to serve on the new board: “Let’s get the best people we can on the Inland Wetlands Board,” he said.
Now the board is separate and qualified candidates are running to fill the positions. “It’s a terrific bunch of talented people,” Coyle said.
They’re equipped to handle aquifer protection, he said.
Conservation Commission member Jack Kace also referred to state aquifer protection regulations guarding the town’s one state-designated aquifer, while town aquifer protection regulations protect the town’s nine other aquifers.
“All aquifers of Ridgefield should be the responsibility of the Inland Wetlands Board directly,” Kace said.
Eric Keller, an alternate on the Conservation Commission, said it was important to put aquifer protection in the hands of the wetland board in view of the mostly difficult land that remains open to development.
“If we look at the pieces of land developed in the future, they’re going to be geologically challenging and they’re going to be environmentally challenging,” he said. “...Extra care will be needed for protection of these areas.”
Susan Consentinio, one of three Democratic candidates for the Planning and Zoning Commission — all non-incumbents — read a statement she said was also supported by the other two Democrats running for P&Z, Bob Nneji and Rob Hendrick.
The Planning and Zoning Commission already has an immense workload with all the development applications that come in, she said.
“Aquifer protection should be assigned … to the elected Inland Wetlands Board,” Consentino said, drawing applause from the auditorium.
“I believe aquifer protection should reside with the Inland Wetlands Board,” said Catherine Neligan of Old West Mountain Road.
“Ridgefield has changed. There is less and less land for development,” she said.
Neligan reviewed the backgrounds of candidates for the new wetlands board — a former environmental director for the Town of Wilton, a civil engineer, two environmental attorneys, two people with master’s degrees in landscape architecture.
“These folks not only show an interest in protecting our aquifers, but they have the legal and regulatory expertise to do so,” she said, urging Ridgefielders to “make sure our aquifers are protected by the most qualified and most interested members of our community.”
Katherine Daigle of 239 Peaceable Street said townspeople “wondered what we can do to ward off” unwanted development proposals, and had voted for separate Inland Wetlands Board.
Leaving aquifer protection with the Planning and Zoning Commission diminished that, she said.
When she’d voted to split off the wetlands board last fall, she thought it was a complete separation.
“Allow the people a second go-round,” Daigle said, “to completely and totally separate the Inland Wetlands Board from planning and zoning.“
Tracey Miller if 138 Ramapoo Road, a Democratic candidate for the Inland Wetlands Board, shared an upbeat assessment as the hearing wound down.
“I’m optimistic,” she said. “I think we’re on really good footing and we’re moving in a really great direction.”