Town puts forward compromise to protect aquifers
Protecting the town’s aquifers and drinking water will likely remain a duty of the Planning and Zoning Commission, although an advisory role will be created for the new separate Inland Wetlands Board.
That was the solution worked out by the selectmen after a contentious discussion involving members of different town agencies May 8.
“Everybody wants to have clean water, have the aquifers stay clean,” Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark said, seeking to calm the waters.
While the selectmen reached consensus, the process to enact their solution will take time — and members of the Planning and Zoning Commission and Conservation Commission aren’t united behind the plan.
The selectmen decided to have language drawn up by town attorneys revising the town ordinance concerning Aquifer Protection Agency duties. That language will be put up for discussion at an Aug. 21 public hearing and the ordinance change is scheduled for vote by townspeople at a Sept. 4 town meeting.
“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, explaining the compromise
The issue came up in the wake of last fall’s decision by voters to approve a charter change that will split the combined Planning and Zoning Commission and Inland Wetlands Board into two agencies.
The current combined P&Z Commission and Inland Wetlands Board also functions as the town’s Aquifer Protection Agency, and amid last year’s lengthy and heated debate about whether or not to separate Inland Wetlands from P&Z, there wasn’t a lot of discussion of the aquifer protection role.
Now, with the split mandated by voters to take place after a new separate wetlands board is elected in November, the question needs an answer: Should guarding aquifers remain a duty of the Planning and Zoning Commission, or go with the new independent Inland Wetlands Board?
The issue had been brought to the selectmen’s attention back in April by Rebecca Mucchetti, chairwoman of the combined Planning and Zoning Commission and Inland Wetlands Board.
The language of the 1990 ordinance assigning aquifer protection duties to the combined Planning and Zoning Commission and Inland Wetlands Board doesn’t clearly point one way or the other, saying: “...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 wording appeared to leave each agency with a claim to the task.
Mucchetti, the P&Z chairwoman, argued that her commission’s authority to regulate land uses and create zones where specific uses could be allowed — or forbidden — would best protect aquifers.
“Land use is critical in the regulations, as is what takes place above an aquifer,” she said — and named some uses that could be problematic: ”printing plants, photography studios.”
But the Conservation Commission — which had publicly led the charge to get wetlands authority separated from planning and zoning — advocated having the new wetlands board take on the aquifer protection.
Conservation member Jack Kace complained that Planning and Zoning has not shown itself vigilant about guarding aquifers.
“They have not been asking businesses and home businesses what hazardous materials they’re using,” he said.
Kace cited Planning and Zoning’s approval of a pond dredging business at a home on Rainbow Lake and a contractor’s yard off Route 7 across the highway from Little Pond and the Norwalk River.
“They didn’t ask any of the right questions,” Kace said of the P&Z commissioners. “What are they going to be storing there? Are they going to be flushing out those tanks?.”
“That is an erroneous statement,” said Mucchetti, the P&Z chairwoman.
Zoning member John Katz said the commission had used its power to dictate very specific “conditions of approval” to address the environmental concerns Kace raised.
“In conditions of approval, we forbade the use of any of those chemicals,” Katz said.
Back when the question first came before the selectmen, a memorandum from the land use office staff had listed how the 79 of Connecticut’s 160 municipalities with aquifer protection agencies share their responsibilities with other boards: 63 aquifer agencies are combined with planning and zoning commissions; 12 are with the town’s wetlands board or commission; three are the responsibility of the towns’ conservation commissions; and in one town aquifer protection is handled by the Water Pollution Control Authority.
“I think that percentage is pretty telling,” said Selectman Steve Zemo, “when you have 63 out of 76.”
Selectwoman Barbara Manners was also convinced. “Land use — it belongs with P&Z.”
Selectwoman Kozlark wavered.
“I was leaning to giving it to the Inland Wetlands Board,” she said. “...Talking about land use, that kind of concerns me.”
Marconi suggested the compromise. Planning and Zoning would have the authority, but Inland Wetlands would have a formal role making recommendations on applications — much as the town charter has Board of Finance rule on the Board of Education’s budget, but charges the Board of Selectmen with making a “non-binding recommendation” on the level of school spending.
Kace suggested that the Inland Wetlands Board be formally given “a seat at the table” when applicants come before Planning and Zoning acting as the Aquifer Protection Agency.
The Conservation Commission makes its advisory comments from the audience at Planning and Zoning meetings — with the result, Kace suggested, that its recommendations aren’t taken as seriously as they should be.
Mucchetti and Katz— disagreed vehemently with that assessment.
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Katz told Kace. “I don’t know where you’ve been…”
The selectmen were attracted to Marconi’s compromise.
“I like the non-binding recommendation idea,” said Kozlark.
“If we’re going to do that,” Marconi said, “I’ll have counsel draft language.”
Having the town attorney write a proposed ordinance is expected to take some time, but the selectmen didn’t want to schedule the vote in summer when many people are away. They targeted the end of summer when folks are back in town — having the public hearing at a meeting rescheduled from Aug. 14 to Aug. 21, followed by a town meeting on Sept. 4.