Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Do not go gentle into that DEEP good night: Raised Bill #141: Part IV - Wetlands Maps

Amendments to wetlands boundary maps: variations on a (statutory) theme

DEEP proposes in section three of Raised Bill #141, click here to read the bill or go to: https://www.cga.ct.gov/2016/TOB/s/pdf/2016SB-00141-R00-SB.pdf,  to eliminate all of the procedure currently associated with map amendments, including: conducting a public hearing in certain timeframes, posting a copy of the amendments in the town clerk’s office for public perusal, stating at a meeting the reasons for the change(s), providing a copy of the changes to DEEP.

I suppose it depends on how you define the problem with maps to determine whether this proposal solves it or makes it worse.

What is the purpose of the municipal wetland map?  For commission members it is so they will know where the resources within their purview are located.  For land-owners wishing to develop their property it is so they can know how to plan their construction. For the rest of the community it is to know what areas come within the scrutiny of the commission. 

There are town wetlands commissions that follow the statutory procedural requirements for map amendments and their citizens are well-served with notice, opportunity to be heard and with reasons stated on the record for those changes.  To those towns, I say: go forth and multiply! 

And then there are the variations on the theme:  towns which don’t go through the official map amendment process and merely attach a soils map (performed by a certified soil scientist) to an application for a permit and never change the official map.  I have seen some towns do this ostensibly because of the cost of producing the oversized map sheets.  Some just got in the habit of letting the wetlands application morph into map amendment.  The unofficial, informal way seems so user-friendly and helpful, until . . .

One example:  Abutters to land which is being clear-cut call me for assistance to determine if this is a wetlands violation.  The abutters go to town hall and ask for a copy of the official wetlands maps of the area which they purchase.  It appears the clear-cutting is occurring on wetlands.  I speak to the agent for the municipal wetlands commission. He is a respected, experienced certified soil scientist himself.  He explains that a more accurate and recent soils map was produced in 1988 for a residential subdivision application that was denied.  The official map wasn’t amended, the subdivision application never was built – but somehow the soils map lived on, in some people’s memory, but is not provided when the official wetlands map is requested, because, of course, it isn’t the official wetlands map.  Twenty years later, another certified and experienced soil scientist examines the property and contacts the town agent.  They walk the property and agree in the field that there aren’t wetlands soils in a certain area.  The soil scientist writes a letter to the agent to confirm this.  As a result no application for a permit need be filed because the soil scientists in the field agreed the area contains no wetlands.

In this example, the most recent map amendment is not even a map, it is a letter stating the agreement between one soil scientist and the town agent that the soils map from 1988 no longer reflects current conditions.  The town commission had no input or role in adopting what the soil scientists agreed to out in the field.

Back to my earlier statement – What is the problem with map amendments?  To me the problem is when soil maps attached to applications are used in place of the official map amendment process.  The lack of formality translates into a lack of transparency which means there is not a common understanding of where the wetlands are located.

Viewed through that lens, I do not see the DEEP proposal as a solution.  Section 3 of Raised Bill #141 relaxes the official amendment process and doesn’t address the informal, unofficial, "extra-legal" process currently taking place in some towns.

To those who complain that it’s too cumbersome to hold two public hearings, one on the map amendment and one on the application for a wetlands application, I say: Process them both simultaneously -- hold a joint public hearing!

To those who complain of the cost of amending the official wetlands maps, I say: This is 2016.  Soil scientists are creating digital maps.  Receive maps in digital format.  The towns should maintain the maps digitally.

If there are still problems with the implementation of the formal map amendment process that lead towns to work around, i.e., deviate from the official map amendment process, form a task force of stakeholders to come up with a solution.  Full transparency, ease of access to official maps.  Surely, this can be solved.

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