Separate wetlands from P&Z? Current board voices concerns

Documented, detailed, deliberate, the Planning and Zoning Commission and Inland Wetlands Board presented a methodical point-by-point rebuttal to the previously made case for splitting off its wetlands functions and transferring them to a separate agency.

“It is about the law,” Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti said. “When the IWB renders a decision, it must be within the law.

“While the board’s decisions may not always be popular, they are sound, supported by law, and always made with environmental impact as the prime consideration.”

After the nearly three-hour presentation to the Charter Revision Commission on April 9, public comment was accepted — and members of the Conservation Commission reiterated arguments they’d made March 12 for separating wetlands work from planning and zoning.

The point wasn’t that the current combined board and commission did a bad job with wetlands, Conservation Commission Chairman James Coyle said, but that a separate agency would focus solely on wetlands protection and see that as its primary responsibility.

“We think separating the boards would be a step toward continuous improvement,” Coyle said.

Among 11 speakers in the public comment portion of the charter meeting, eight were for the proposed split — five of them Conservation Commission members, one a former member, and another a member’s spouse. Three speakers opposed the split — two of them Planning and Zoning members and the third a developer.

The zoning commission’s presentation was made by Mucchetti, commissioner member Joe Fossi, Planning and Zoning Director Richard Baldelli, and Inland Wetlands Agent Beth Peyser. Looseleaf binder books with 14 tabbed sections were provided for all charter members.

Separating wetlands oversight from planning and zoning duties is one of many possible changes to the structure and processes of town government that the charter commission is considering. What the commission recommends will be reviewed by the selectmen and either rejected by them or passed for a town vote — the goal is to have charter questions on the ballot in November’s election. Separating the wetlands board from the zoning commission was studied by the last Charter Revision Commission but didn’t make its final recommendations.

State law

Mucchetti said the wetlands board’s authority derives from — and is limited by — state statutes. It must work within guidelines set by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). “The Inland Wetlands Board is not an advocacy body. It is a regulatory agency that is obligated by law to adhere to the Inland Wetland Watercourses Act and the guidance of the DEEP.”

She added that the state inland wetlands act under which the board operates limits its reach.

“The legislature did not adopt broad definitions of wetlands,” she said. “The act protects the physical characteristics of wetlands and watercourses — not the wildlife.”

The board’s charge under state law isn’t to prevent development of the wetlands. It can’t just say no.

“The state does not prohibit disturbance to its natural resources,” Mucchetti said. “The state regulates it.”

More staff

Baldelli said separating the board from the commission would generate more work for the department, creating a need for more employees.

“There’s no way the Planning and Zoning Department can support, functionally, an independent wetlands board,” Baldelli said.

Larger applications arrive in “multiple Bankers Boxes,” Baldelli said, and separating the board from the commission would require the creation of “a separate and distinct office” to support the newly created agency.

“There will be a need for more staff,” he said. “I’ve been there 32 years. I know how things work. I know how to do things efficiently.”

The department currently has three and a half positions, and when asked, Baldelli said that separating the two agencies would probably create a need for another one and a half staff positions.

Peyser had gone through statistics from Ridgefield and four neighboring towns to compare the amount of wetlands “restored, enhanced or created” to the amount of wetlands “disturbed” in each town, for each permit issued.

Of the five towns, Ridgefield is the “second most conservative” — showing the second least amount of wetlands disturbed, per permit issued — behind Wilton but ahead of New Canaan, Redding and Bethel.

Peyser also created an “enhancement-to-disturbance ratio” showing the balance of wetlands acreage “restored, enhanced or created” against the amount of wetlands “disturbed” in each town, per permit issued.

Ridgefield had the best ratio of wetlands enhanced versus wetlands disturbed, at 5-to-1, compared to 2-to-1 in New Canaan and Redding and 1-to-1 in Wilton and Bethel.

Peyser’s figures were from the years 2009 to 2015; information available from the state for 2016 and 2017 wasn’t complete, she said.

The books charter commissioners received contained copies of several legal decisions where the wetlands board’s action had been upheld by the courts.

The commission also made a case that while relatively few of Connecticut’s 169 towns and cities have wetlands boards combined with planning and zoning agencies, the number is growing. In 2000, Ridgefield was one of two towns with combined agencies; in 2018, it’s one of eight.

Experts, scrutiny

Charter Commissioner Joseph Egan recalled that several years ago he’d had a problem with neighboring property that was re-developed — a house torn down and a much larger house built — resulting in greatly increased runoff affecting his property.

“The developer had an engineer submit a plan, certify that everything was correct, and the board was obligated to follow that,” Egan said. “The problem was they had an engineer, but it was an engineer paid by the developer, who certified everything was fine.”

“Someone cheated,” said Baldelli.

Since then, the wetlands agent has been added to the staff, raising the amount of review projects are given.

A lot of discussion focused on the wetlands board’s growing use of “peer review” consultants — engineers, soils scientists and other professional experts an applicant is required to pay for, but who are chosen by and report to the commission — providing skeptical scrutiny of assertions by developers’ experts.

“The scrutiny today is much higher,” Baldelli said.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Martin Handshy, developer of the 54-unit condominium project on 10 acres former town Schlumberger land at 77 Sunset Lane, described his experiences having his own team of engineers and soils scientists augmented by a similar “peer review” team representing the town.

“The system worked as it should,” Handshy said.

“The peer review reviewed everything my team had prepared and they came up with several suggestions,” he said.

Handshy also said Baldelli would contact him when there were predictions of heavy rain, and inspect before and after to observe the results of efforts to keep silt from the construction site running off into the wetlands.

“I was really shocked at how well it worked. We had weekly inspections,” he said.

Conservation’s case

In the public comment period, Coyle again made the case for separating the wetlands functions and giving them to an appointed agency that he thought would attract more scientific expertise than does the current combined commission and board, which people get on by running for office.

“We think with an independent wetlands board you can get a different type of person, who doesn’t want to run for election, more science-oriented,” Coyle said.

Coyle reiterated Conservation commissioners’ vow that they don’t want to take over the wetlands duties themselves but feel it should be an independent agency.

Louise Washer of the Norwalk River Watershed Association sided with the conservationists.

“It does seem it’s time for the towns to think about what they can do differently,” Washer said.

“You’re in an earnest quest for best practices,” said longtime Ridgefielder Tom Elliott. “The quest for best practices doesn’t stay in Ridgefield — it immediately proceeds downstream.”