Conservationists push for separate wetlands agency

Protecting Ridgefield’s water resources — lakes, rivers, streams, swamps — should be the main priority of an independent board, the Conservation Commission argued, not another duty for a commission focused primarily on the push and pull of land development with its battles over traffic, parking, housing density, and affordability.

“We think there should be an independent Inland Wetlands Board,” Conservation Commission Chairman James Coyle told Ridgefield’s Charter Revision Commission on Monday, March 12.

“Ridgefield deserves the best protection of our wetlands, rivers and drinking water.”

In a lengthy presentation, the Conservation Commission proposed the separation of the Inland Wetlands Board from the Planning and Zoning Commission, and urged the charter commission to recommend that the split be put before townspeople for a vote next fall.

It’s an idea the previous Charter Revision Commission studied, but didn’t recommend, four years ago.

“What changed in town? More intense development, requiring more protection,” Coyle said.

“More intense storm events.”

Conservation Commission member Kitsey Snow said there’d been “a 250% increase in winter runoff events in five years” and also “a 71% increase in heavy downpours in the Northeast in the last 60 years.”

The conservationists suggested that an appointed Inland Wetlands Board would attract members knowledgeable in the science of wetlands.

“There’s not a need for more regulations so much as a need for experienced inland wetlands people,” said conservation Commissioner Jack Kace.

Supporting the conservationists’ position was a series of speakers: Michael Autuori, a former member of both the conservation and the planning and zoning commissions; Pat Sesto, a Ridgefielder who has been inland wetlands director for three years in Greenwich and was in Wilton for more than 20 years before that; and even a quartet of middle school students who presented an entertaining skit.

The Planning and Zoning Commission is expected to make the opposing case April 9 — and  some of its members listened from the audience Monday.

No one expressed doubt that the nine members of the combined zoning and wetlands agency are honest, hard-working and dedicated to the town. The argument was that they have two separate duties, two sets of regulations to oversee.

“There is a mind-set. One tends to think, ‘We’re going to go with this development, so let’s make the wetland issues fit,’” said Autuori, who served some 20 years on the combined Planning and Zoning Commission and Inland Wetlands Board. “The reason I support separation of the two boards is that mind-set.”

“Wetland and watercourse protection is essential to our community to safeguard us from stormwater impacts, preserve a safe and adequate supply of groundwater, and protect downstream properties from development impacts and pollution,” Pat Sesto wrote in a letter to the commission.

Monday night, she took the argument back to the 1972 act by the state legislature, calling on towns to create wetlands boards and regulations.

“The act in 1972 was about protecting our drinking water supplies,” she said. “This is about our ability to keep our groundwater recharged. As someone whose well went dry five times last year, I care.”