Aquifer protection: Is it zoning or wetlands work?
Protecting the town’s aquifers — Ridgefielders’ future drinking water — is a job town officials all want done and done well. There’s been some debate about what town agency should do the work.
“That’s all we want to know: Who’s going to protect the aquifers best?” Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark said. “And, hopefully they’ll be working together to keep our aquifers clean and safe.”
The selectmen decided at their May 8 meeting that the duties of the Aquifer Protection Agency should stay with the Planning and Zoning Commission, and not be transferred to the new separate Inland Wetlands Board that will be created next fall.
But the selectmen are still having the town ordinance that addresses the issue rewritten, giving the new separate wetlands board an advisory role of making "non-binding recommendations" on matters that come before the P&Z commission acting as the Aquifer Protection Agency. The rewritten ordinance —which town attorneys will work on — is scheduled to come before an Aug. 21 public hearing for discussion and a Sept. 4 town meeting for a voters .
"We're talking about having it rest with the P&Z — but, any application, they get a non-binding recommendation from the Inland Wetlands Board," First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.
The issue has come up in the wake of last fall’s vote to split the combined Planning and Zoning Commission and Inland Wetlands Board into two agencies — a separation which will take place after members of a separate wetlands board are elected in November. The current combined board and commission also functions as the town’s Aquifer Protection Agency. The debate is: After the split, should the aquifer protection duties stay with the Planning and Zoning Commission, or go with the new independent Inland Wetlands Board?
Discussion at the previous April 17 selectmen’s meeting turned in part on the language of the 1990 ordinance assigning aquifer protection duties to the combined zoning and wetlands agency. Section 19-37 of the town ordinances says, in part: “aquifer protection rights, duties and obligations are assigned to the members of the Planning and Zoning Commission in their capacity as the Inland Wetlands Board.”
The issue had been brought to the selectmen’s attention by Rebecca Mucchetti, chairwoman of the combined Planning and Zoning Commission and Inland Wetlands Board.
“For a variety of reasons, including but not limited to experience with implementing the aquifer protection regulations, having the aquifer protection district located on the zoning map, and having the aquifer protection standards located within the zoning regulations ... the commission is submitting to you their recommendation that the aquifer protection rights and obligations Sec. 19-37 be modified to have the Planning and Zoning Commission the responsible authority,” Mucchetti wrote to the selectmen.
Mucchetti told the selectmen the language of the ordinance was clear enough.
“It does not give authority to the Inland Wetlands Board,” Mucchetti said. “It gives it to the Planning and Zoning Commission in their capacity as the Inland Wetlands Board.”
The Conservation Commission had championed the separation of wetlands duties from planning and zoning, and conservation member Jack Kace spoke up in favor of having aquifer protection responsibilities go with the wetlands board.
“They’re interconnected. In our minds the two boards are very analogous — inland wetlands and aquifer protection,” Kace said at the April 17 meeting. “... In our minds there’s no difference between Inland Wetlands Board and the Aquifer Protection Agency. They still need to protect our water.
“The Inland Wetlands Board is a board established to protect inland wetlands from improper land use,” Kace said. “It seems a check and balance on planning and zoning.”
This was disputed by Planning and Zoning Commission member John Katz.
“Inland wetlands boards have not been appointed or thought of as a check and balance to planning and zoning,” he said.
Kace followed up with April 29 letter to the selectmen.
“I was asked at the BOS meeting what would be different if the APA were combined with the IWB. Better understanding of the regulations and their use is the main thing. The skills set required for the APA overlap nicely with the skill sets needed for the IWB.
“The PZ is a very hard-working commission, meeting almost every week, generating pages of meeting minutes. But their time available for the APA is limited and apparently so is their interest,” he added.
“The APA currently meets only four times per year. And the APA meeting minutes for 2018 show that the length of the meetings was: April, one minute; June, five minutes; September, three minutes; and December, one minute...
“Going forward, we need an APA that will review all new/modified land uses for businesses or home occupations that are in a state or local aquifer protection zones. New businesses and home occupations might not even be aware that they are in an aquifer protection zone or that products that they use could present a risk to drinking water. They need to be informed. This is the best way to assure that there is no unreasonable risk to our aquifers and drinking water.”
Mucchetti said that Aquifer Protection Areas — or “wellhead protection areas” — are designed to “minimize potential contamination of the well field” with specific land use regulations.
“The regulation is focused on the use and discharge of hazardous materials,” she said.
In her letter to the selectmen, Mucchetti cited research by the commission’s staff.
“Land use regulations are established in those areas to minimize the potential for contamination of the well field,” the staff report says. “The regulations restrict development of certain new land use activities that use, store, handle, or dispose of hazardous materials and requires existing regulated land uses to register and follow best management practices...
“Major responsibilities of municipalities containing Aquifer Protection Areas are:
Appointing an existing commission to act as the APA;
Delineating the aquifer protection area boundary on the town zoning map;
Identifying and inventorying potentially regulated activities in the area;
Adopting/amending local aquifer protection area regulations consistent with state regulations;
Registering regulated businesses and facilities within the aquifer protection area;
Educating the public about the importance of protecting groundwater.”
Mucchetti said the research by the commission’s staff had found that of the 79 Connecticut towns with aquifer protection agencies, 63 of them shared duties with the Planning and Zoning Commission, while 12 were combined with Inland Wetlands Boards and four were part of Conservation Commissions or Water Pollution Control Authorities in their towns.
First Selectman Marconi said that threats to aquifers were wide-ranging — from old underground oil tanks at homes and businesses to the the use of salt on roads in winter.
“Regardless of what way you go,” Mucchetti told the selectmen, “we believe the ordinance needs to be modified.”
In a May 1 letter to the selectmen, Charter Revision Commission chairman Jonathan Seem said the five-member charter commission majority who’d voted to separate the two boards felt the aquifer protection tasks should go to the wetlands board.
“We believe that the newly elected Inland Wetlands Board (IWB) should serve as the Aquifer Protection Agency (APA) upon their election in November.,” Seem wrote. “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...
“Indeed, had the issue been brought to our attention, we would have specifically incorporated aquifer protection in the new IWB's powers.”
The selectmen decided they would discuss the issue at a future meeting, but did not set a date.
“It’s a good homework assignment for us,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.
The selectmen did say they’d try to have the discussion “in advance of the caucuses” in July that will nominate party slates for the November election, since they’ll be nominating people to run for the new separate Inland Wetlands Board, and also the Planning and Zoning Commission, and it might help people making those decisions to know which board will be handling aquifer protection.
“It may affect how people are voting on specific members,” Selectman Steve Zemo said.
Any change to the ordinance would likely be proposed by the selectmen, reviewed by the town attorneys, and put before voters at a town meeting — possibly the quarterly town meeting planned for June 19.