Wetlands split was big issue in selectmen’s July 18 charter talk

Editor's note: This story ran in Thursday's print edition of The Press. It does not reflect what happened at Wednesday night's selectmen's meeting (July 25). That story can be read here.

Splitting wetlands oversight off from the Planning and Zoning Commission doesn’t appear to have support from a majority on the Board of Selectmen. The board also has concerns about a proposed charter change requiring attendance by at least 2% of voters for the annual town meeting to take substantive budget action. And the selectmen seem skeptical of what they view as a wholesale changes to ethics provisions in the charter.

“It was a long discussion,” Selectman Steve Zemo said of the proposed separation of the Inland Wetland Board from the Planning and Zoning Commission. “What struck me was the chairman’s comments: ‘It it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ ... I’d like to see some concrete reason why this is broken.”

First Selectman Rudy Marconi was more sympathetic to the Charter Revision Commission’s proposed split of the two land use functions.

“We have less and less land in town,” Marconi said. “I think the system needs to be adjusted, and maybe the structure is the way to do that. We don’t have that much land left.”

Charter change proposals were debated for four-and-half hours Wednesday, July 18, at a public hearing and following selectmen’s discussion that went until midnight.

While the selectmen appeared to hash out some positions, they didn’t vote on any recommendations to the Charter Revision Commission. Voting was put off until the board’s meeting Wednesday night, July 25 — too late for this issue of The Press.

As the charter revision process nears its conclusion, the next step is for the selectmen to pass its recommendations for adjustments to the proposed charter changes back to Charter Revision Commission. The charter commission may then make some changes — or elect not to — before passing the charter change proposals back to the seletmen, who’ll get a final opportunity to vote “yes” or “no” on each proposed charter change to be put on the ballot for town voters’ approval in the November election.

Not counting dueling presentations from the Conservation Commission and the Planning Zoning Commission, a total of 17 people offered opinions in public hearing portion of the meeting — 10 attended and spoke, and another seven sent in letters that were read aloud.

Fourteen of the 17 people offered opinions on the proposal to split the Inland Wetlands Board off from the Planning and Zoning Commission, and make it an independent elected agency.

Of the 14 sharing thoughts on the wetlands board proposal, 10 favored the split and four were opposed.

Three people voiced opinions on other charter topics.

A 2% rule?

Joe Savino opposed the Charter Revision Commission’s proposal that the annual town meeting would have authority to reduce or eliminate budget proposals from town officials only when the meeting is attended by at least 2% of the town’s registered voters — about 360 people these days.

Savino said that in 2010, a charter commission had proposed totally eliminating the town meeting’s power to reduce proposed budget amounts, and the change had been voted down with 55% — 4,781 of 8,697 people voting — against it.

Requiring attendance by 2% of voters for the town meeting to change budgets would scuttle that power, according to Savino. “Setting the bar this high will have the same effect as eliminating it,” he said.

He also said past charter revision ballots showed 66% people voting opposed proposals to change the tax collector from elected to appointed, and 64% opposed the change for the treasurer’s office.

The selectmen didn’t agree, reaching a consensus not to seek changes to charter proposals making treasurer and tax collector appointed.

The board did share Savino’s concern about limiting the annual town meeting budget-reducing powers to meetings attend by 2% of town voters.

“I get it, there should be a substantial number of voters,” said Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark. “...I think it’s going to kill the town meeting.”

“We never get that many people,” Selectwoman Barbara Manners said of the 360 that would be needed to reach 2%.

Marconi said turnout would have been “maybe 50 people” at some recent annual town meetings “if you eliminate employees who aren’t residents” but come ready to explain their budgets.

“This year, we had 120 people there — 120 people eligible to vote,” said Cindy Bruno, who as a registrar of voters was checking people into the annual meeting.

Bruno was at the public hearing to express concern about the charter commission’s proposal to prevent people from running for more than one office in a single election.

She particularly objected to the explanation that the change was prompted by confusion after the last election and “a lack of clarity for several days” as to who would hold some offices.

The problems had come from faulty advice given by the secretary of the state’s office, she said.

“There was confusion that day,” said Marconi.

“To change the charter because of a single real, or perceived, problem seems unreasonable,” Bruno said.

Charter ethics ‘rewrite’

Without prompting from any hearing speakers, the Board of Selectmen expressed concerns about the Charter Revision Commission’s proposal to entirely replace the ethics provisions currently in the charter with a new section written largely by charter commission member Lester Steinman, an attorney, in collaboration with town Board of Ethics chairman Bart Van de Weghe. The idea was to make the ethics section have fewer “aspirational” goals and more specific rules.

“You felt this was giving you more teeth?”  Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark asked Van de Weghe.

“Making it more clear,” Van de Weghe replied.

Selectwoman Barbara Manners pointed to the conflict of interest wording.

“I can see almost anybody who sits on a board in this town being in conflict — because of a spouse, a child, a tangential relationship,” she said.

“It opens up too many avenues for people to bring grievances.”

While she doesn’t have a career at this point, Manners said some fellow board members are employed in fields where it might not be hard for people to assert conflicts: Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark is a real estate agent, and board members Steve Zemo and Bob Hebert both work in land development.

All the selectmen seemed worried by the scope of the proposed change — in the Charter Revision Commission’s report, seven pages of the old ethics section are crossed out, and nine new pages are proposed.

“It’s a major rewrite,” said Hebert. “We don’t know what the unintended consequences will be.”

Wetlands split

But the night’s dominant issue was the proposal to split the Inland Wetlands Board from the Planning and Zoning Commission.

In the selectmen’s discussion after the hearing, Bob Hebert and Steve Zemo said they opposed the split. Manners said she opposed it unless the new wetlands board was to be made appointed — currently the charter commission’s plan is for an separate elected wetlands board. Marconi disagreed, supporting the split of the two agencies. And Kozlark seemed very much on the fence.

Views may have shifted some before they vote on the matter.

During the hearing Barbara Hartman, who lives on Lake Mamanasco, was among the 10 people voicing support for the splitting wetlands from planning and zoning duties.

“I’m quite concerned about water quality,” she said. “We are in big trouble at Mamanasco Lake … It’s extremely important to have an independent Inland Wetlands Board who’d really be able to zero in on those issues.”

Pat Sesto, a former Conservation Commission member and current director of environmental affairs for Greenwich, said separating the board from the commission would be better serve the town.

Having written many of the Conservation Commission’s advisory opinions on development applications, she’d been “extremely frustrated” that suggestions often weren’t implemented.

Sesto pointed to the application for redevelopment of the golf range property on Route 7.

The Conservation Commission had recommended a buffer of 15 feet between the Norwalk River and areas being developed for golf-playing, and in the end the project was approved with distances as small as two feet between the river and the golf facilities.

“It’s not acceptable that that’s the level of protection our resources are getting,” Sesto said.

Planning and Zoning Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti later explained that the golf project’s buffer distances varied from two feet up to eight feet.

The town hadn’t pushed harder on the distances because the state had given strongly worded advice that wetlands boards have no authority to mandate “riparian buffers” around wetlands and watercourses, Mucchetti said.

However, Conservation Commission members said that while the wetlands board can’t write a regulation requiring riparian buffers of specific size everywhere in town, it can look at specific circumstances and use its judgment to reject applications where it feels developed areas come too close to wetlands — and this should have been done in the case of of the golf project.

“They would have been within their rights to say two feet is not adequate to protect the resource and therefore deny the application,” Conservation Commissioner Susan Baker said.

‘Peer review’ experts

Another argument advanced in favor of the split is that a separate wetlands board would attract more people with scientific expertise in fields like geology and biology.

The commission had maintained that it doesn’t need members who are scientific experts because it has “peer review consultants” who review applications, and analyze and question the testimony given by developers’ constants — engineers, soils scientists and biologists. The peer review consultants serve as a counter-balance to testimony from the developer’s team of hired professionals.

Jeff Hansen, who organized the neighborhood opposition to a development proposal for a ice skating center, told the hearing that “the objectivity of the peer review” should be questioned. “They’re paid by the applicant,” he said.

Bob Jewell, an attorney who has frequently appeared before the Planning and Zoning Commission, challenged that assertion. He said the peer review consultants are always selected by the commission and its staff.

“The town hires the peer review consultants. The peer review consultants unquestionably work for the town,” Jewell said. “While the applicant does, in fact, pay, it basically reimburses the town for those costs.”

Jewell also said the current combined wetland and zoning agency handled its dual role well.

“They balance the interests of property owners and the community,” he said. “It’s always a balancing of interests.”

“Yes, it is a balancing act,” said Conservation Commission alternate Ben Oko. “Our pitch is the balance should lie in protecting the resources.