Friday, December 31, 2010

Looking back on . . . 2006

I was looking around for material to reflect on wetlands topics in the past year and I did find something new (at least to me) on the DEP website that looked back -- way back: 2006 Status and Trends Report. I honestly just saw this yesterday. Perhaps it's been on the website for months, waiting to be clicked upon. The report is dated "December 2009" and uses the 2006 data required to be submitted monthly by municipal wetlands agencies as a basis to evaluate trends.

(The submission of municipal data arises from the statutory section, C.G.S. § 22a-39(m), that instructs DEP to adopt a regulation establishing reporting requirements for municipal wetlands agencies. The regulation, Regulation of Connecticut State Agencies § 22a-39-14, was duly adopted and in effect as of December 29, 1988. The instructions to the form indicate the form is due monthly.)

In 2006 there were 4,380 reported agency actions. Permits issued accounted for 64.3% of the activities, with agent approvals another 24%. Permit denials (120) constituted 2.7%, permit amendments/extensions another 2.7%, jurisdictional rulings (exemptions) (126) 2.9%, map amendments (85) 1.9% and enforcement (85) another 1.9%. Only about 12% of the work of municipal agencies is not spent on permit issuance. Denials, extensions, exemptions and enforcement are distinctly different from issuing a permit. It's those actions which aren't performed often and don't fall into the permit issuance mode that agencies frequently stumble over. Precisely because they have less experience exercising those portions of their regulations. This past year I had occasion to seek an extension of a permit before the wetlands agency of one of our larger cities. The agency and staff professed to having never handled an extension before. I guess we'll have to wait until 2014 to read the 2010 Status and Trends Report to know if the recession resulted in an uptick of extensions.

Residential development as a whole, whether from a homeowner or a developer, accounted for 69% of the applications, with commercial and industrial applications accounting for 11 % ,and state projects less than 1%.

The report includes some raw data. Some old: number of wetlands and watercourses regulated by the law: approximately 510,000 acres. Some new: number of wetlands acres altered (as authorized by permit) - 75; number of wetlands acres created - 129, for a net gain of 54 acres.

DEP commented on three trends that it noted. One, DEP sees a continuing trend of no-net-loss of wetlands since the late 1990s. On page 8 of the report the activities encompassing the net gain of wetlands are described as acres "to be restored, enhanced or created." The trend of no-net-loss of wetlands would be most beneficial if the majority of the 129 acres were for restoring or enhancing existing wetlands. As I understand it, there is some doubt whether creating a wetland is as valuable as protecting an existing one. I guess my opinion on this trend is cautious optimism.

Another trend DEP noted was the increased amount of action shifted away from wetlands agencies over to the approved agent (one who has completed the DEP training.) The authority of agents to act on applications in the upland review area causing minimal impact was established in the 1996 amendments. In a decade agents went from acting on zero applications per year to over 1,000. These are the driveway repair, deck in the upland review area , etc., where the agent can act more swiftly than the agency, allowing the agency to concentrate on the larger applications. This is a win-win scenario.

The last trend I'll comment on is DEP's interpretation that only 1.9% of all actions are enforcement-related, because the wetlands act is administered so well. Here I part ways with DEP. Enforcement, like jurisdictional rulings and denials, constitutes such a tiny portion of agency work that they are just not familiar with the process nor are they comfortable with it on a routine basis. The burden of proof is entirely different from agency experience with permit applications: burden on applicant in a permit proceeding, but burden on the agency in enforcement. Agencies are used to picking apart submissions of applicants, not putting together water-tight cases. Until a majority of agency members goes through the DEP training, I don't think we'll see an appreciable change in enforcement.

Of course, the data in the 2006 report would be even more valuable if they reflected information from all towns. After "special" attention from DEP, written notice and a new submission date, 25 towns -- 15% of all towns -- still did not manage to submit 2006 data by October 9, 2009. Shall we presume those towns did not collect the data? As a public service, I will list the towns, as the DEP did in its 2006 report (although I will use reverse alphabetical order):

Winchester, Westbrook, Watertown, Wallingford, Stratford, Sprague, Shelton, Scotland, Salisbury, Preston, Plainville, North Canaan, North Branford, New Britain, Middlefield, Meriden, Marlborough, Killingworth, Franklin, Brooklyn, Berlin, Beacon Falls, Ashford, Ansonia, Andover.

To leave on a cheerful note, Darcy Winther reports being busy trying to fill 3 positions in the DEP wetlands program. One, vacated by Carl Zimmerman, will now be (re)filled by him, as he has rescinded his resignation. As I hear it, he is responsible for many, if not most, of the improvements to the DEP wetlands homepage. The other two positions are for wetlands enforcement.

May that help us as we right our boat next year through deficit-plagued waters.

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