Committee approves measure to speed environmental permit application process

To the alarm of environmentalists and applause of industry, a legislative committee Tuesday approved a bill aimed at speeding up the application and review process by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“We need to make the process more business friendly. And that’s not a bad thing, especially in this recession,” said Rep. Richard F. Roy, D-Milford, co-chairman of the Environment Committee.

But environmentalists oppose the bill, particularly a provision requiring the DEP to set up a pilot program under which it must approve applications within a certain time or the permit is automatically granted.

roy, richard, 4-21-10

Environment co-chair Richard F. Roy: Making the process ‘business-friendly’ (Jacqueline Rabe)

“This is the holy grail for businesses. This essentially is saying we’re really not going to apply the law if DEP fails to act” in the specified time, said Christopher Phelps, director of Environment Connecticut. “Installing a faster process is fine, but setting arbitrary deadlines is not.”

The bill, which also was approved last month by the Commerce Committee, also removes some statutory requirements for permits, requires establishment of an on-line application process, and directs the DEP to provide more assistance to applicants by redirecting existing resources.

DEP Commissioner Amey Marrella asked the Environment Committee on Monday to delay forcing changes in permitting procedures, saying the DEP is making progress.

But waiting is exactly what has businesses across the state frustrated, says Eric Brown, a lobbyists with the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.

Brown says he frequently hears stories from local businesses about how they have been waiting to get the go-ahead from DEP for two and three years.

“It’s making it hard to do business in this state. DEP is by far the most challenging agency to deal with,” he said.

DEP doesn’t dispute that more needs to be done to speed up the process, spokesman Dennis Schain said, but the agency has shed 150 workers and seen its budget cut by 15 percent in the past two years. With 950 employees its staffing is at a 12-year low.

“We understand that we need to act in a timely manner, but we have concerns this will erode the environmental standards,” he said.

Schain said DEP already has taken steps to cut approval times in about a quarter of its programs. For example, he said, the time it takes to get a decision on an application to the Office of Long Island Sound Programs has been cut from two years to just three months.

“We have taken action, and it’s working,” he said.

But CBIA says requiring DEP to abide by deadlines will help jump-start the economy by allowing business projects to move forward.

“A business should not have to wait two years to do something,” Brown said, who says DEP’s problem is how it does business, not that there are staff shortages.

Legislative leaders have expressed some support for pushing change on DEP. “Certainly looking at ways to reduce red tape for small businesses should be considered,” said Derek Slap, spokesman for Senate Democrats.

But with mounting deficits ahead, the cost of change is an issue.

The legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates creating the on-line application process to serve DEP and three other agencies would cost at least $3.6 million next year, and although the bills says the agencies should pay for the project with existing resources, it is likely that more funding would be required.

“Should we do this? Of course we should streamline the process and make it more predictable,” said House Majority Leader Denise W. Merrill, D-Mansfield. “But if we don’t have the manpower or the money, then maybe we should wait.”

Merrill said she is not confident the legislature is in the mood to fund such an initiative, since with the looming deficits all eyes are on where to make cuts.

“We just aren’t very well positioned to do that right now,” she said.