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East Lyme Inland Wetland Agency holds marathon public hearing on proposal to extend review area

East Lyme — Dozens of residents showed up for what became a marathon public hearing held by the Inland Wetlands Agency on Monday night to weigh in on a proposal to expand the town’s upland review area to 500 feet.

The agency regulates but does not prohibit activity within the current upland review area, which is 100 feet surrounding wetlands and bodies of water other than the ocean. If the proposed changes are passed, homeowners and developers proposing to build anything from a shed or a porch to a home or septic system within such areas must first submit an application for a permit from the town to complete such work.

Over 50 participants logged into the more than four-hour virtual hearing, with more than a dozen comments made by those participating and more than two dozen additional comments submitted via email.

The comments, expressing both support and opposition to the proposed change, highlighted a divide between townspeople on how to best protect the town’s environment and delicate underground drinking water supply while also balancing how such changes may burden homeowners and town staff, and whether it would curb future development in town.

Back-and-forth discussions ensued between the public and Inland Wetland Agency Chairman Gary Upton, as well as other agency members, concerning state laws dictating upland review areas; the current quality of the town’s drinking water; the possible need to hire more town staff to tend to an influx of permit applications; and whether the agency had truly based its proposal on “scientific evidence,” said attorney Paul Geraghty, representing East Lyme-based LLC English Harbor Asset Management, among other various concerns.

“A blanket regulation ... is going to create all sorts of headaches,” Geraghty said. “... To do that, you need to have a rational, scientific basis to do so and I have seen none of that tonight.”

Resident and civil engineer Robert Pfanner asserted that expanding the upland review area would simply bring about more lawsuits for the town, while many residents in favor of the change questioned whether such concerns should outweigh consideration and long-term planning for the town’s environment.

“I think that is an important consideration, but from my perspective not nearly the most important consideration,” resident John Anthony said. “No one said protecting the environment was going to be easy. In my opinion, and I don’t stand alone here, this requires some bold action and some leadership of not (catering) towards current operational processes.”

Anthony’s 18-year-old daughter, Madison, who is a student at the University of Hartford, also spoke Monday, highlighting a petition she created supporting the proposal. It has since received more than 800 signatures, 173 of which she said are from East Lyme residents, as of July 12.

“Within days of publishing the petition it became clear that the protection of our environment and steps like this are considered important to the citizens of our town,” Madison Anthony said. “This is not just a concern for East Lyme residents, but an issue for all and we have a common dependency on our wetlands and waterways.”

Others speaking at Monday’s hearing suggested the agency consider curbing its regulations around critical waterbodies and headways and consider, instead, the slope of certain areas, as well as further collaborate with the town’s Zoning Commission before making a decision.

Though the Inland Wetland Agency has been considering revisions to its regulations for years now, as the regulations have not been updated since 2011, the decision to focus solely on expanding its upland review area came in May after Upton said it was the best starting point for the commission.

“This setback number is the big piece and so we are starting on that big piece,” Upton said at Monday’s hearing. “We don’t intend to create, if this is approved, a cumbersome regulation that stops people from putting in pools and putting in decks.” He said the agency would continue to revise its regulations to avoid such burdens.

Agency members also have argued the measure will help further protect the town’s bodies of water and drinking water aquifers, which they believe have been threatened by development over the years.

“The reason why we are doing this is in response to the declining drinking water quality in town,” agency member Ted Koch said. “A lot of people are concerned with this and we’ve also had a lot of people come in and say there is a pond that used to be clean and now there’s something going wrong with it and there’s no one particular person to blame.”

Koch also said the town’s annual water quality report, which is compiled and released by the town’s Water and Sewer Department, had reported increasing sodium levels within town water supplies. “It’s doubled in the last decade,” he said. “And one of the reasons we want to expand our jurisdiction is to get a handle on that.”

East Lyme public water customers receive their drinking water from seven separate wells throughout town and, in summer months, from the Lake Konomoc reservoir in Waterford, which is controlled by the city of New London. All seven wells draw from either the Pattagansett or Bride Brook aquifers.

"I think it is important that we consider the potential costs that could arise if we do not take care of the surface water which eventually feeds into our drinking water supplies," agency member Rosemary Ostfeld said. "It's all interconnected and by not taking protective measures, that can have large economic impacts."

She noted the town has already significantly invested into upgrading filtration systems for some of its wells, referring to a more than $5 million project the town is pursuing to install additional filters for drinking water coming from two of its wells in an effort to keep manganese at safe drinking levels, as dictated by the state Department of Public Health.

But town staff have been more skeptical of the proposals in recent weeks, stating the regulation change, if passed, could place 80% to 90% of the approximately 9,000 residential and commercial properties in town within the upland review area, Inland Wetlands Agent Gary Goeschel estimated last week — requiring those residents to pay for and file a permit application with the town should they want to build a deck or shed on their property, install a pool or replace a septic system, among other things.

Depending on the extent of the work, some homeowners would need to go before the agency to present their projects before receiving permits, while Goeschel argued that he alone would be left to approve or deny a large majority of those applications, putting strain on his duties as both the wetlands enforcement officer and town planner.

Developers proposing new projects, such as apartment buildings or subdivisions, within the review area would be required to go before the agency for review, as is the case now with the 100-foot upland review area.

Goeschel also has argued that there are more effective ways to protect the town's bodies of water by requiring developers to follow more stringent building and development rules — a sentiment that also was iterated by some speaking Monday, as opposed to laying down what he has described in the past as “a blanket” proposal.

As part of proposing changes to its regulations, the agency has notified the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection commissioner, the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, as well as abutting municipalities, including Old Lyme and Salem, for their review and comments, along with several town departments, boards and commissions for their feedback. Submitted responses, correspondence and letters have all been placed into the record for review and are available online.

The Inland Wetland Agency voted to keep the public hearing open to allow time to include more evidence supporting its proposed change and is scheduled to continue Aug. 10. Residents unable to attend that hearing may email comments with "To the Inland Wetland Agency and Chairman Gary Upton" in the subject line to ggoeschel@eltownhall.com and gary@uptonbass.com.

m.biekert@theday.com

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