A rare accord on streamlining DEP

It’s an unexpected conclusion to what had been expected to be a showdown: Environmentalists and the business community both are endorsing a bill intended to streamline issuance of state permits and licenses.

When the legislative session began just three months ago, such a resolution seemed unlikely. Business lobbyists were demanding an end to lengthy delays in the permitting process, particularly at the Department of Environmental Protection, and they appeared to have some sympathetic listeners in the legislature.

“They’ve been at a standstill for years,” said Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, co-chairman of the legislature’s Environment Committee. “Something needed to happen. We have thousands of businesses complaining. This is the time to expedite the process to get new jobs and projects moving, not continue at this pace.”

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Sen. Edward Meyer

But environmentalists said business was trying to roll back environmental standards.

“Polluters are trying to put road blocks in the way of the DEP doing its job, taking the environment cops off the beat,” Christopher Phelps, program director the advocacy group Connecticut Environment, said in February.

One major concern of environmentalists was a measure that would have required the DEP to set up a pilot program under which is would have to take final action on applications within 90 days. If not, the permit would be deemed granted.

That bill arose out of years of complaints by the state’s largest business lobby, Connecticut Business and Industry Association, and other groups that it can take years for businesses to get their needed licenses and permits. In numerous instances, businesses watched as their permits expired while waiting for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to approve or deny them.

“We’re frustrated. It’s hard to do business in this state,” said Eric Brown, CBIA’s environment lobbyist.

The DEP doesn’t dispute that more needs to be done to speed up the process, DEP 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.

But Phelps called the measure “the holy grail for businesses. This essentially is saying we’re really not going to apply the law if DEP fails to act.”

“That would have been unacceptable. It would have been unrealistic for [DEP] to meet every deadline,” said Eric Annes, a fellow with Connecticut Fund for the Environment.

The two sides have deadlocked over regulatory reform before. This year, Meyer said, the state’s weak economy and the need to grow jobs provided added impetus for compromise.

“The incompetence at DEP finally came to a head. It was a remarkable coming together to bail out a beleaguered government agency. … We finally were able to have a handshake,” he said.

Less than 24 hours before the mandatory close of the regular legislative session, the deal was struck among all interested parties – including Gov. M. Jodi Rell, whose Permitting Task Force report was the basis of the final legislation.

The compromise bill creates a new state office whose sole responsibility is to expedite the permitting and licensing process for projects that will create at least 50 jobs, develop a green technology business, be transit-oriented or located in an area in need of environmental rejuvenation. It also creates time frames within which applications should be approved or denied, but does not penalize DEP for failing to meet the guidelines. Rather, it requires the agency to publicly report why it was unable to do so. It also requires a complete review of every permit.

All sides say they are satisfied with the compromise.

“We did push that there needs to be a consequence if they don’t meet those deadlines. What’s the point in having a deadline with no consequence?” CBIA’s Brown said. “But at least now they have deadlines and we will know why they aren’t meeting them.”

Roger Reynolds, a lawyer for Connecticut Fund for the Environment, said the original legislation was punitive and wouldn’t work. “If you underfund them, yell at them to do more and punish them when they don’t, nothing is going to get better,” he said.

DEP Commissioner Amey Marrella had asked the Environment Committee last month to delay forcing changes in permitting procedures, but Schain said her concern has since changed because there is no punishment or automatic approval for failing to meet these new suggested timelines.

“I don’t think anyone wants us rushing through applications when the future of our environment is at stake. Time limits should not trump environmental concerns,” he said. “This sets goals and requires we evaluate what it will take to reach them. That’s good for everyone.”

Rell, who said she was rooting for the Senate to pass the bill in the final seconds of the legislative session last week, is expected to sign the measure. Environmentalists and the business community will applaud her for it.

“We got everything we asked for,” Reynolds said.

“Curious how things work out, huh?” said Brown. “I remember hearing this was a polluters’ bill.”