Aquifer protection: What town agency is best suited to handle the job?

The question will be debated at a public hearing next Wednesday, Aug. 21, starting at 7:30 in the auditorium of Veterans Park School.

The two agencies under consideration for the task are the Planning and Zoning Commission (PZC), which has served as the town’s Aquifer Protection Agency (APA) since 1990, and the new independent Inland Wetlands Board (IWB). The Inland Wetlands Board was separated from the Planning and Zoning Commission through a charter change approved by voters last November — and will start work after this November’s election, which will fill the seats on the new separate agency.

The Board of Selectmen called next Wednesday’s public hearing “to hear comment on determining whether the APA (Aquifer Protection Agency) should be under the jurisdiction of the Planning and Zoning Commission or the soon to be elected Inland & Wetland Board.”

Whatever decision the selectmen reach in the wake the hearing will be sent to voters at a town meeting planned for Sept. 4, according to First Selectman Rudy Marconi.

The Board of Selectmen scheduled the public hearing and town meeting for late August and early September to allow a decision to be made before November’s election.

“One member felt it should be after the election,” Marconi said of the selectmen. “Another felt if people are running for office, they should know what their duties will be.”

The second point won over other selectmen, he said.

The current language in the town ordinances references both of the agencies under consideration. Section 19-37 of the ordinances states that “all aquifer protection rights, duties and obligations … are herewith assigned to the members of the Planning and Zoning Commission in their capacity as the Inland Wetlands Board.”

The question pits the Planning and Zoning Commission, which has long exercised aquifer protection duties, against the Conservation Commission, which is pushing to transfer aquifer protection to the new independent Inland Wetlands Board.

P&Z outlook

Planning and Zoning Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti makes a case that the job should stay with the P&Z Commission, citing the recommendation of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).

“The PZC continues to believe that the Aquifer Protection Agency should remain with the PZC, in compliance with DEEP recommendations,” Mucchetti said. “DEEP states that the APA is tasked with implementing local land use regulations by regulating land use activities through the issuance of permits for regulated activities which is in line with the responsibilities of the town's PZC.”

If regulating land uses is the primary way to protect aquifers, she argues, that’s what the Planning and Zoning Commission has been doing for effectively for years — and it’s not exactly what the Inland Wetlands Board does.

“The state established that land use APA regulations are to minimize the potential for contamination by restricting development of certain new land use activities that use, store, handle, or dispose of hazardous materials. Such authority does not rest with the IWB, as its authority is to regulate certain activities, not uses, within the town’s wetlands, watercourses, waterbodies and upland review areas,” Mucchetti wrote.

“Of the 79 towns with APAs in Connecticut in 2018,” she added, “the vast majority (62) are the responsibility of PZCs, Planning or Zoning Commissions — just 12 rest with IWBs, three with Conservation Commissions and one with Water Pollution Control Authority.”

She added, “... the PZC and APA are proud of the work we have done on behalf of the town and state aquifers. As of June 4, 2019, DEEP and the Connecticut Department of Public Health Drinking Water Section reported no spills or investigations by the DEEP in Ridgefield.”

Conservation view

Making the opposing case — that aquifer protection duties should go to the new separate Inland Wetlands Board — is the Ridgefield Conservation Commission. Members of the commission were also active last fall in support of the charter change to separate the Inland Wetlands Board from the Planning and Zoning Commission.

“The DEEP has limited resources and focuses on aquifers providing drinking water to more than 1,000 people. The protection of the smaller aquifers are the responsibility of the municipality,” a position paper from the Conservation Commission states.

The conservationists point to regulations the town adopted in 2010, following the state’s lead, for protection of aquifers in “public drinking water supply areas” — Ridgefied has one of these, the Oscaleta Aquifer.

“These regulations are about 28 pages long. They are word for word what was required by the DEEP except they were never updated as required when the State requirements were modified in late 2010,” the Conservation Commission statement says.

The Conservation Commission was also not greatly impressed with the P&Z Commission’s effort to adopt “locally-defined aquifer protection regulations” which govern nine other aquifers in town — none of which are “public drinking water supply areas” as defined by the state.

“These regulations are much less than the state requirements for the aquifers that serve more people, but are a good place to start,” the conservationists said.

“... While the Charter Revision Commission (CRC), the BOS (Board of Selectmen), and most importantly, the voters of Ridgefield voted 3:1 to separate the Inland Wetlands Board (IWB) from the Planning and Zoning Commission (PZC), the topic of the APA was not dealt with,” the Conservation Commission statement says.

“Ridgefield's Town Ordinance Section 19-37 states that pursuant to State law, all aquifer protection rights, duties and obligations are assigned to the members of the PZC ‘in their capacity as the Inland Wetlands Board.’ We interpret that to mean that now that the two boards are separated, the APA responsibilities should fall to the new IWB.”

Charter revision

The Conservation Commission also cites a letter to the selectmen from the Charter Revision Commission back in May, when they were first discussing the question of where aquifer duties would go.

The charter commission’s letter states: “We believe that the newly elected Inland Wetland Board (IWB) should serve as the Aquifer Protection Agency (APA) upon their election in November. As you know, the APA and its functions are not mentioned in the Town Charter, and the issue of the APA was not raised at any time during our discussions, public hearings, or deliberations regarding the separation of the IWB from the Planning & Zoning Commission.

“The APA is included in Town Ordinance 19-37 which states that “pursuant to Public Act No. 89-305, § 8, all aquifer protection rights, duties, and obligations as set forth in Public Act No. 89-305 are herewith assigned to the members of the Planning and Zoning Commission in their capacity as the Inland Wetlands Board” (emphasis added). Based on that language alone, it seems clear that the APA responsibilities and duties should stay with the IWB upon its election in November.”

The Conservation Commission position also appears to have support from Ridgefield Voters United, a citizens group that has been organized around land use issues.

Bill Jaeger, a member of the group, wrote to The Press on the upcoming public hearing.

“This is expected to be a major discussion in which the Ridgefield Conservation Commission and Ridgefield Voters United (the latter of which I am a member) are expected to be active participants,” Jaeger wrote, “as well as probable participants (on the other side) of Planning and Zoning Commission members.”