Lack of training a problem for some town wetland boards

Having an application pending before a municipal inland wetlands commission can be an exercise in pure frustration.

At times, simple requests to build a deck, a shed or a garage on one’s own property can turn into protracted, off topic discussions or arguments over the development of what a property owner may consider a wet piece of property of little value, but a commission considers a vernal pool.

And by 2006, according to the Connecticut Council on Environmental Quality, the headaches and misunderstandings were becoming too frequent and painful to ignore.

“We were aware from citizen complaints that things were not going smoothly,” for applicants at many municipal wetlands agencies, said Karl Wagener, CCEQ’s executive director. “There had been general improvements, but these were obvious problems.”

The council decided to look into those problems, and the result was a special report entitled “Swamped” published in October 2008. Among the findings in the report is the fact that in violation of state law, 37 cities and towns had wetlands commissions that did not include a single member who had completed training for such service by the DEP.

CCEQ called those cities and towns, and “most of the people we spoke to were not apologetic or embarrassed. They said, ‘We have other things to do, we’re too busy,'” Wagener said.

That attitude and the failure to complete DEP training causes the destruction of wetlands, and makes the local permitting process difficult for applicants and legally risky for wetlands commissions themselves.

CCEQ’s annual report on the state of Connecticut’s environment, which was issued in late April, argues that a lack of training for the members of inland wetlands agencies is still one of the major problems facing Connecticut’s environment.

Two years ago, 37 cities and towns had not one inland wetlands commission member who had completed the DEP’s required training. Wagener said he doesn’t believe that number has changed much since “Swamped” was published and he suspects the number may have even increased.

Franklin, a small, rural town just north of Norwich, was one of the 37. According to First Selectman Richard Matters, the town would make the same list again today.

“As far as I know, no one has gone,” Matters said. His feelings about why that is echoed what CCEQ heard during its research for “Swamped.”

“They are appointed. We are a very small town, so we have difficulty to get people to even serve,” he said. Franklin’s inland wetlands commission currently has no vacancies.

Other small towns do much better. Joseph Theroux is wetlands agent for five rural towns: Ashford, Chaplin, Lisbon, Sprague and Sterling. He pushes commissions in those towns to get trained, and he also gets lucky. Ashford, which was on the 2008 list of noncompliant towns, now counts among its members a retired University of Connecticut environmental science professor and a soil scientist who delineates wetlands for a living.

“Swamped” concluded that training or the lack thereof “was the single most important factor in how a town protects its wetlands,” Wagener said.

If 100 permits were approved to alter wetlands by trained commissioners as opposed to untrained commissioners, 3.6 fewer acres of wetlands will be destroyed, the report concluded. Between 2001 and 2006, 132.5 acres of wetlands were spared destruction by the presence of trained commissioners, it said.

Last year and again this year, CCEQ proposed legislation that would require town inland wetland commissions to state which, if any, of its members have been trained on the record before public hearings.

The bill, “An Act Concerning Enhancements to the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Act” was killed both times.

CCEQ has what may at first seem like an unlikely ally in the fight for better trained wetlands commissions: the Homebuilders Association of Connecticut.

Citizens who complained to CCEQ “felt strongly that members of the commissions did not know what questions to ask, or they approved elements that should not have been approved,” Wagener said.

Bill Ethier, head of the homebuilders association, said what he’s seen has led the association to ask for training requirements that go well beyond what CCEQ advocates.

“There are a lot of delays, and they’re spending time trying to figure out basic things,” Ethier said. “I’m an attorney, and I’ve represented applicants, and I’ve had commission members ask, ‘what do these lines mean,’ and they’re topographical lines.”

Ethier was a member of the mid-1990s legislative task force that wrote the requirement that one member of each municipal wetlands commission complete DEP training. He said that requirement is much too weak. On the task force, he advocated for a measure that would have required all commission members to be trained.

“I think they’ll make better decisions if they know the statutes, know the rules and know the science of wetlands,” Ethier said. “If they’re trained, they’ll know what their authority is and what their limitations are. Zoning is very broad. Wetlands regulations are narrow, but a lot of (wetlands commissions) think they’re little environmental protection agencies, and the law says they are not.”

Theroux, the wetlands agent for five rural towns, said even though DEP offers three free training sessions each year and he strongly suggests that one member from each town’s wetlands commission attend every year, “a lot of times, it is hard to get commissioners to go.”

“They give up a lot of personal time” simply serving on the commission, Theroux said. So, to give up a Saturday may seem like a bit too much to ask.

For Ethier, turnover on local volunteer commissions “is all the more reason we should have a robust training program in place.”

Volunteer commission members are pressed for time and DEP is chronically underfunded and understaffed. But DEP could produce training webinars or CDs for distribution to commissions around the state.

“There’s a lot we could do,” Ethier said.

Part of the training focuses on legal and liability issues, which can change from year to year. And to ask one commission member to attend a daylong training session and bring back that information to share leaves a lot of opportunity for information to be lost in translation, Ethier said.

Ethier said the homebuilders association isn’t interested in making wetlands commissions less strict, but wants them to make decisions fairly, efficiently and in accordance with the law.

But both he and Wagener have seen and heard of commissions that simply do not understand the laws they are supposed to be enforcing and following.

Wagener said, “You can’t say no arbitrarily. You have to make a good, deliberate decision. You get commission members that feel the benefits of a project outweigh the damage to wetlands, which isn’t necessarily one of the criteria of wetlands regulations.”

Unfortunately, the laws in place for getting inland wetlands commissions understand those criteria are weak.

Like Ethier, state Rep. Bryan Hurlburt, D-Tolland, a member of the legislature’s environment committee, thinks there are simple things DEP could do to help bring commissions into full understanding of the laws and regulations they are supposed to enforce and the scientific concepts involved in wetlands regulation.

“I don’t think the law could get any weaker than it already is. There is no enforcement and no penalty” for commissions that do not comply with the training law, Hurlburt said.

“How about if we give some sort of penalty, or give DEP some sort of authority to go after these people…  Maybe it’s just a letter to the town that says, “You’re out of compliance, we will be training and someone should attend.'”

Matthew L. Brown is an award-winning journalist who has covered a wide range of subjects as a reporter for the Willimantic Chronicle and the Hartford Business Journal. He is currently the managing editor of the Worcester Business Journal in Worcester, Mass. He lives in Dayville.