Hearing Tonight on Expanding Wetland Review Area in East Lyme from 100 to 500 Feet

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EAST LYME — The East Lyme Inland Wetland Agency will host a public hearing tonight on a proposal to enlarge its the scope of review from 100 to 500 feet around inland wetland areas.

The proposed change to East Lyme’s Inland Wetlands and Watercourses regulations would expand the upland review area and mean that the commission would review any construction or changes to land within 500 feet of any inland wetland or watercourse to determine if it has a significant environmental impact.

The hearing will be held at 7 p.m. by Zoom. The commission could vote on the proposal Monday evening after the hearing, Wetlands Chair Gary Upton said.

In recent comments, East Lyme planning director and wetland enforcement officer Gary Goeschel, has been critical of the proposal.

Goeschel told the East Lyme Planning Commission last week that the new review area would cover almost all of East Lyme, would require more staff to review applications, and would impose an additional $160 fee and permit process on almost anyone seeking to build or alter land in East Lyme.

Upton explained in an interview that the commission already has the authority to review activities outside the existing 100-foot upland review area if the activity is “likely to impact or affect wetlands or watercourses.” 

Upton said, however, that some developers use the 100-foot measurement against the commission, arranging projects to fall just outside of the 100-foot boundary while arguing that the commission has no jurisdiction over the plans. He also said that other town commissions don’t refer projects to inland wetlands that fall outside of the 100-foot zone, but could still have a significant impact on wetlands and watercourses.

“That part of our regulations is too ambiguous, and it’s not abided by,” Upton said.

Upton said that increasing the upland review area wouldn’t bar homeowners from building a deck, shed or pool. Those are all allowed, regulated uses within the review area, he said. It also wouldn’t affect farmers, he said, whose activities are protected even within wetland review areas.

“All we’re asking for is the review of what’s going on in that area. It’s not a ‘no zone,’” Upton said.

Goeschel told the planning commission that one concern with the proposal is the additional burden of obtaining a permit not required under current regulations. He also questioned if the change could have an effect on land values if prospective home buyers are concerned about the additional permitting.

The expansion of the upland review area is the only change the commission has proposed as of now, but it’s part of an ongoing effort to update the commission’s regulations. The commission decided to move forward with a public hearing just on the review area because it was the most significant and controversial change being considered, Upton said.

Later changes to the regulations could address specific concerns, like overburdening homeowners who are seeking to make relatively minor changes to their property, like expanding a deck, Upton said. Whether a project of that scale has significant impact on wetlands and waterways could be left entirely up to administrative review by the town’s wetland officer, he said.

Goeschel told the planning commission that he made a map of the 500-foot buffer and said it covered “almost the entire town.”

CT Examiner could not reach Goeschel on Monday morning, but he said he would present the map at the public hearing.

“In my opinion, it will essentially require everyone who applies for a building permit to make an application for the inland wetland permit,” Goeschel said.

Goeschel said the area is too large for him to cover on his own, and the town would have to quickly hire more staff, he said.

“We can come up with policies and procedures and just crank out paperwork, but then what are we really doing?” Goeschel said. “We’re just cranking out paperwork and generating revenue. Are we really improving the environment?”

Goeschel told the planning commission that he advocated for more narrowly-tailored changes. Most towns retain a 100-foot review area, but some have wider review areas around vernal pools, Goeschel said. Old Lyme has a 100-foot review area around wetlands and watercourses, but a 400-foot review area around vernal pools.

He suggested that much of the concern is motivated by a desire to protect the aquifer, especially given the new Costco development. Goeschel said that the commission might then want to consider expanding the review area around Pattagansett Lake or Powers Lake. According to Goeschel, the Pattagansett would be more of a concern because it experiences more development.

“If you really want to be proactive, maybe we increase the regulated area around the Pattagansett, or maybe particular wetlands in that area of town,” Goeschel said.

Upton said that he had fielded proposals based on factors like the grades of slope, but that complex rules can allow “fancy footwork” from developers. He also said a permanent body of water should have the same protection as a vernal pool.

“Why would we protect an intermittent watercourse with a 500-foot review area, knowing that there’s a pond there, or a stream or a river, all year round, and there’s only a 100-foot area left for that,” Upton said. 

“If you want to do something in a coastal town, and build on a site that has wetlands, then everything should be reviewed,” Upton said.

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