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No Gateway Approvals for “Living Shoreline” Project off Fenwick

in Old Saybrook

OLD SAYBROOK — The living shoreline planned by the Connecticut River Conservancy and Lynde Point Land Trust for Fenwick will be the second public project of its kind, but three other living shoreline projects have been constructed successfully by private landowners since the 2012 legislation permitting them was passed.  

“In 1980 a law was passed limiting the use of hard flood and erosion control structures, but in 2012 an exception was passed,” said Brian Thompson, director of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection land and water resources division. “A living shoreline is an example of that exception with structural and non-structural elements. Stone is used to decrease water velocity and wave action and then sand and vegetation are placed around or behind.”

According to Thompson, the legislation does not define what a living shoreline is, but it does make clear that the intent of the structure must be for the restoration or protection of tidal wetlands, dunes, beaches or tidal flats.

In Fenwick, the goal is to restore the breached sand dune that protects the tidal marsh and houses behind it.

“Its primary purpose or effect must be for restoration, but it can also have the effect of protecting infrastructure,” Thompson said.

Defining primary purpose is tricky, but Thompson said most engineers in th region work closely with DEEP before submitting an application for a project.

“We’ve never actually had an application we had to turn down yet,” Thompson said.

Apart from DEEP, the Lynde Point Land Trust and the Connecticut River Conservancy are seeking approval from the Army Corps of Engineers before starting construction, which could begin as soon as this winter.

The project developers will not apply for approval from the Connecticut River Gateway Commission.

“You know about something I don’t,” said Torrance Downes, staff for the Connecticut River Gateway Commission and Deputy Director and Principal Planner for the Lower Connecticut River Council of Governments.  “I’m not completely surprised that folks in Fenwick would not necessarily reach out to me, as there is a widely held opinion amongst the land use folks over there that they are not under Gateway authority.”

According to the state statute that created the Connecticut River Gateway Commission in 1973, the Commission was tasked with protecting the scenic and natural landscape of a conservation zone which includes parts of Old Saybrook, Essex, Deep River, Chester, Haddam, East Haddam, Lyme and Old Lyme within 300 feet of the water.

In the statute the Borough of Fenwick and Lynde Point are clearly described as part of the conservation zone, however unlike every other municipality within the zone, the Borough of Fenwick was not given a seat on the commission.

“Fenwick does not have a voting member on the Gateway Commission or any formal membership in the manner that Old Saybrook does,” said Marilyn Ozols, zoning enforcement officer for Fenwick. “Old Saybrook cannot make land use decisions for the Borough of Fenwick.”

Due to that lack of representation, Fenwick does not recognize the jurisdiction of the Gateway Commission over the municipality.

“But it’s a long story we don’t want to talk about right now,” Ozols said.

It’s a longstanding dispute, Downes explained, that Gateway has not pursued because “visual impacts of development in Fenwick are a different beast than along the treed hillsides further up river. In my opinion, it’s a lower priority issue than many that Gateway deals with on a regular basis.”

DEEP, which is represented on the commission, declined to comment on the dispute.

“I understand that they sort of have a difference of opinion,” Thompson said. “In this case, part of the answer is that the Gateway Commission doesn’t regulate in-water activity. That’s the jurisdiction of the state.”