RIDGEFIELD — Aiming to strengthen protections for rivers, lakes, swamps and streams, the Inland Wetlands Board has increased the size of the uplands review areas — buffer zones where development is more tightly regulated — around wetlands, watercourses and vernal pools.

“Development of and/or loss of naturally vegetated land adjacent to wetlands and watercourses has long been recognized as a source of pollution and other impacts to those resources,” said Pat Sesto, chairwoman of the wetlands board.

“Maintaining a buffer between development and the aquatic resources allows vegetation in the buffer to absorb pollutants, infiltrate runoff, ameliorate thermal pollution, and reduce sedimentation in the wetlands and watercourses.”

As part of a package of amendments that took effect Sept. 4, the wetlands board revised its base definition of the uplands review area to be land:

• Within 100 feet from the boundary of any wetland or watercourse;

• Within 150 feet from the spring high water mark of any vernal pool;

• And within 150 feet from the spring high water mark of four significant rivers — Norwalk, Titicus, Saugatuck River and Silvermine rivers.

The new regulation also defines the upland review area to include: “Any other area regardless of distance outside of the defined upland review area, as determined by the board or the board staff, where the activity proposed is likely to adversely impact or affect a wetland or watercourse.”

Under the previous regulation, there was a list of various land use activities and distances from wetlands or watercourses that would trigger a permit requirement were specified.

Leaching fields for septic system would trigger the wetlands permit requirement if they were within 50 feet of wetlands or 75 feet from a watercourse, under the old rules.

“Buildings used for the storage of animal manure, toxic or hazardous substances” would need a wetlands permit under the previous regulations if they were within 75 feet of a wetland, or 100 feet of a watercourse.

Development allowed

Under the state wetlands law that is the foundation for town wetlands regulations, development is not forbidden in upland review areas — or even in wetlands.

The same is true the town wetlands regulations. They don’t forbid activities in or near wetlands, they require that people get permits from the wetlands board for them.

“When an activity is proposed in a wetland, watercourse, or their adjacent upland review area, a permit is needed,” Sesto said.

“Applicants are entitled to a permit when what they are proposing has no impact on the wetland or watercourse,” she added. “If impact cannot be avoided, it is the applicant’s burden to justify the impact, demonstrate the impact cannot be avoided by feasible and prudent means, and they have provided mitigation to compensate for the unavoidable, justified impact.”

The town’s wetland regulation are enforced by the board with assistance of Beth Peyser, the town’s wetlands agent, who is part of the staff at the land use office in the town hall annex.

“Proposed activity within a wetlands and/or a watercourse, or the upland review area of a wetlands and/or watercourse, is a regulated activity requiring wetlands review and approval,” Peyser said.

The burden is on the applicant seeking a permit for any kind of land use activity to determine if there are wetlands, watercourses or upland review areas involved.

They must submit “a wetlands delineation” completed by a certified soils scientist, and it is then in the judgement of wetlands agent “to determine whether the proposed activity is a regulated activity” under the regulations, Peyser said.

The wetlands delineations must include a soils report and sketch map.

If there are no wetlands on the site, the soils scientist “must also confirm whether or not it is their professional opinion if there are any regulated upland review areas” that would be affected by the work proposed.

If there are upland review areas, they should be defined by the soils scientist.

There is on exemption to the soils test and mapping requirement. They are not required “where the improvements are entirely contained within the existing footprint of an existing structure with no new earth disturbance.”

100 feet

Sesto said there is scientific support for keeping a 100 foot distance between land use activities and wetlands or watercourses.

“One hundred feet was chosen as extensive, long-standing studies have shown 100 feet protects a wetland or watercourse in most circumstances,” she said. “This makes 100 feet a good place to start regulating activities by effectively stating, due to proximity to a wetland and/or watercourse of 100 feet or less, the proposed activity may have an impact on those resources.

“From there the discussion begins,” she said. “What is the quality of the wetland or watercourse? What is the nature of the activity and is it one that has a potential to impact the resource? What is the quality of the buffer that will be lost? Can an applicant improve the quality of the remaining buffer as mitigation for loss of less protective buffer? Is there an opportunity to move the activity further away from the regulated resource?

“The buffer is effectively a zone of discussion,” she said.

The tightening the rules is something the wetlands board members have been committed to.

“The board has been working on this for a number of months,” Sesto said.

The board started in February, and after losing some time to the shutdown of activities due to COVID-19, finalized the revisions in late spring.

The proposed new regulations were sent to and reviewed by the state, and the board adopted the regulations after a public hearing in late August.

“There was a strong shared vision of what the regulation revisions should consist of and there were no dissenting votes,” Sesto said.

Peyser described the changes to the regulations as a continuation of the desire for stronger environmental accountability that voters expressed when they voted in November 2019 to separate the Inland Wetlands Board from the Planning and Zoning Commission.

“The separation passed by an overwhelming number of townspeople’s votes,” she said. “The intent of the new Inland Wetlands Board was to focus more specifically on the protection of natural resources, in particular the wetlands and watercourses within the Town of Ridgefield.

“The Inland Wetlands Board feels that the increase to the regulated area, as adopted, is a necessary change to protect these natural resources.”