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East Lyme wetland agency seeks public input on proposal to extend upland review area

East Lyme — Members of the Inland Wetland Agency are urging members of the public to attend a hearing Monday on a proposal to extend the agency's upland review area from 100 feet to 500 feet.

They argue the measure will help further protect the town’s various bodies of water and drinking water aquifers, which they believe have been threatened by development over the years.

If approved, the extended review area 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 Wednesday. He said he used waterbodies, wetlands and streams maps digitally provided by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to compute how much of the town would lie within the upland review area if it were to be extended. He added that DEEP’s survey does not identify all wetlands in town.

Goeschel, who is also the town's planner, has openly opposed the extension, arguing there are other ways to regulate development and preserve the environment.

The Inland Wetland Agency regulates, but does not prohibit, activity within upland review areas — currently 100 feet surrounding any water body. Homeowners and developers proposing to build anything from a shed or a porch to a home or septic system within such an area must submit an application for a permit from the town to complete the work.

The extent of activity proposed in the area determines whether the applicant can simply receive an administrative permit from Goeschel, who is also the wetlands enforcement officer, or if they must go before the Inland Wetland Agency for further review.

“If I put my (town planner) cap on, there will be an economic impact,” Goeschel said. “It will certainly create a perception in town. If you were a developer, it’s a negative perception. It’s ‘Oh boy, this is going to be a cumbersome process.’”

“This certainly will have an impact on growth and, in my professional opinion, I don’t think it will necessarily be positive,” Goeschel said.

Increasing the area from 100 to 500 feet, agency members have argued, will allow Goeschel and the agency to review and regulate a greater number of activities near town waterbodies and watercourses, thereby protecting them, and would place East Lyme in line with more “progressive towns” throughout the state which have extended their upland review areas, agency member Rosemary Ostfeld has said.

“This is not to prohibit the use of land within 500 feet of an upland. It is simply a review area, which we see builders and developers trying to avoid (review from) left and right,” agency Chairman Gary Upton said by phone this past week. “We are not trying to stop Harry the homeowner from building a garden or a deck. The last thing we are trying to do is keep Harry the homeowners from the free enjoyment of his property. If anything, we are looking to protect current property owners to keep their properties the way they are and their neighboring properties the way they are.”

Upton added that revising the upland review area is “just the beginning” of revising agency regulations. He said some next steps may include ensuring “new regulations are not too burdensome (on property owners).” Agency members also have clarified that their proposal to extend the upland review area may be increased by 100 or 200 feet, instead of 400, depending on the feedback they receive at Monday’s public hearing.

“I don’t believe that 100 feet for an upland review is even coming close to protecting an iota of the wetlands. And (our charge as the wetland agency) ... is to protect them,” Upton said. “We want to increase the boundary line to make sure things are getting checked on. ... I believe there are a number of, if not many, applications that have been approved in town that shouldn’t have been.”

Those unable to attend the virtual public hearing can email comments with "To the Inland Wetland Agency and Chairman Gary Upton" in the subject line to ggoeschel@eltownhall.com.

The public hearing will be held virtually at 7 p.m. Monday and will follow a 6 p.m. show cause hearing reviewing a cease and desist order to local developer and home builder Jason Pazzaglia. The town has provided two separate Zoom links to attend each event and both can be found at eltownhall.com.

m.biekert@theday.com

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