A lightning rod for controversy last year as he oversaw the birth of a new Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Daniel C. Esty glided through a lengthy and ultimately uneventful confirmation hearing Tuesday, even if he dodged questions about new seawalls after Tropical Storm Irene.
Esty, the high-profile Yale professor who was a star recruit for the Malloy administration last year, wryly acknowledged some of the difficult lessons learned from stumbles in his new role as a public administrator.
“I feel like I’ve been a student for the last year,” Esty said.
His refusal to formally review a land swap initiated and approved by the General Assembly drew fire from the Sierra Club at the end of the 2011 legislative session in June.
Last fall, he was slow to respond to questions about a potential conflict of interest over $205,000 in consulting fees he collected from Northeast Utilities over eight years.
But neither the land swap nor the consulting fees came up during two hours of questioning, whose breadth of subjects reflected his broad responsibilities as the first commissioner of energy and environmental protection.
Instead, topics ranged from his thoughts on utility regulation to beach replenishment after Tropical Storm Irene to department policy on parceling out campsites at Hammonasset Beach Park.
No one signed up to testify against his confirmation.
“He seems to have found his groove,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, the governor’s senior adviser. “As he has said publicly, sometime the entrance into the public sector is a bit of a learning experience.”
Esty was confirmed once already as the last commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection. The creation of the new Department of Energy and Environmental Protection subjected him to a new confirmation hearing.
The commissioner came prepared to be quizzed by Sen. Leonard A. Fasano, R-North Haven, whose district includes the ravaged coastline of East Haven.
His constituents have complained about DEEP’s reluctance to approve the repairs of seawalls, some of which apparently were built decades ago without proper approvals, or new walls in areas of severe beach erosion.
“What can we do to work with folks so they are not going to lose their property?” Fasano asked.
Esty replied that his department quickly approved emergency repairs.
“We have been authorizing permits at record speed,” Esty said. “The broader challenge, as you know, is when it’s not a question that is simply a question of rebuilding.”
Esty said the four solutions to beach erosion are: moving a house back from the water, raising a house on pilings above the water, replenishing the beach and building a seawall.
Seawalls are the least attractive option, because they reflect the energy of waves and scour sand, he said. In some cases, depending on how they are angled, they can cause scouring of a beach in front of a neighbor’s property.
Fasano praised Esty for his attention to shoreline issues after Irene, but he complained about staff.
“I think staff should be more open at the ground level, at the boots on the ground level. There is not an easy flow of communication,” Fasano said. “I think staff plays hide the peanut. ‘This plan doesn’t work, but I’m not going to tell you what plan does work.’ “
Several legislators on the Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee represent waterfront communities, including Fasano, Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield.
Esty pledged cooperation, but not specific action.
“I am a big believer in private property,” Esty said. “I do not think we should force people off the coastline.”
But Esty said in an era when many scientists see rising sea levels and the potential for more powerful coastal storms, rebuilding is not always the right course.
“I do think there is a trade-off here,” Esty said. “I think the state does no service in allowing people to put themselves in harm’s way.”
In the end, Esty made only one promise: “You have my commitment to be flexible and thoughtful.”