Letter: Zoning board members have little experience with wetlands

To the Editor:

The Ridgefield Conservation Commission is currently petitioning the Charter Revision Committee on an urgent and timely matter.

As you may know, Ridgefield’s Inland Wetlands Board is responsible for reviewing applications (by developers and builders) for any projects/construction that may impact Ridgefield’s precious wetlands and watercourses and permanently impact the character of our town.

If a developer wishes to build a commercial structure within 75 feet of a wetland or 100 feet of a watercourse (lake, pond, stream, river), an application must be submitted to the Inland Wetlands Board for review and decision. If such projects are not carefully reviewed and monitored, water quality, plants and animals are placed in jeopardy.

In Ridgefield, the Inland Wetlands Board is COMBINED WITH the Planning and Zoning Commission. In other words, the Planning and Zoning Commission also decides Ridgefield’s Inland Wetlands issues. We see this as a major conflict of interest.

A large percentage of Ridgefield’s Planning and Zoning Commission is made up of builders, developers, and real estate agents. The majority of our Planning and Zoning members have very little experience or expertise with Inland Wetlands.

There are 169 municipalities in Connecticut. Only seven have their Inland Wetlands Board combined with their Planning and Zoning Board. Ridgefield is one of those seven (that does not have a separate and dedicated Inland Wetland Board).

While it is legal (in the state of Connecticut) to have the Inland Wetlands Board combined with Planning and Zoning, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection recommends that the Inland Wetlands Board be a separate group of people. Additionally, the Connecticut Association of Conservation and Inland Wetlands Commissions strongly suggests that Inland Wetlands not be combined with another board or commission. Ninety-six percent of the towns in Connecticut have made the very wise and important decision to maintain a separate Inland Wetlands Board. The public benefits derived from protecting inland wetlands and watercourses deserve the undivided attention of a sole-purpose commission. Wetlands need a voice! And different types of water bodies need different kinds of help. What we do in Ridgefield affects the health of the Long Island Sound. The unique geological nature of Ridgefield encompasses significant wetlands— they need to be protected. In fact, multiple watersheds originate right here in Ridgefield, making our wetlands extremely important.

We firmly believe that Ridgefield residents should have the right to vote on whether to separate the Inland Wetlands Board from the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Something of note:

When potential Planning and Zoning board members are seeking public election, rarely do they mention Inland Wetlands in their campaigning. In fact, Inland Wetlands is not even listed on the ballot. Essentially, those running (and elected) to Planning and Zoning become Inland Wetland “experts” by default (since the boards are combined).

Planning and Zoning’s position on this is quite different from the Conservation Commission’s:

Planning and Zoning feels as though having combined boards is more “efficient” – because the same group of people are in one room and can make decisions quickly. When this issue was raised in 2014, Planning and Zoning Chairperson stated to The Ridgefield Press, “We’re all in the same room at the same time, so when a change comes both boards can see it and work from there without any delay.” (Ridgefield Press, March 15, 2014).

The Conservation Commission, however, remains less concerned with the “speed” it takes to review applications, than thoroughness, expertise, and protection of Ridgefield’s water supply and wetlands. Moreover, there are plenty of Ridgefield residents with experience in wetlands issues. The town would have no trouble filling the Inland Wetlands Board with experts who are passionate about wetlands. As it stands, if there is a person interested in serving on our town’s Inland Wetlands Board – it is not possible without running for Planning and Zoning. We do not feel that this makes sense.

We are petitioning the Charter Revision Commission (CRC) to reconsider the town’s charter as it pertains to having Inland Wetlands combined with Planning and Zoning. We are asking the CRC to recommend that the issue be brought to the town for a vote due to its importance and to send it to the Board of Selectman with that recommendation.

Daniel C. Levine
Commissioner, Ridgefield Conservation Commission