Essex Debates Fines as 73 Percent of Wetlands Permits are Issued After the Fact

ESSEX – According to Fred Szufnarowski, chair of the town’s Inland Wetlands Commission, 73 percent of wetlands permits in Essex — eight of 11 permits issued by the town in 2020 — were given out after the fact. That’s an increase from 2019, when five of 14 applied late, and from 2016, when three of 19 applied after the fact.

“We see the trends there – instead of people coming to the enforcement officer to prepare an application and apply for a permit before the work starts, they go out and do the work, and if they get caught, then we have to go back and permit them,” Szufnarowski said. 

Szufnarowski told the selectmen at their Jan. 6 meeting that violations of wetlands regulations have been increasing in recent years – particularly with people getting permits for projects after the fact, rather than before starting a project.

That reported increase in violations has spurred the commission to seek fines of as much as $1,000 for uncooperative property owners, but First Selectman Norm Needleman said he’d rather give the new wetlands officer time to work, before “jumping the gun” with new fines.

In January, Szufnarowski proposed an ordinance to the Board of Selectmen, which would give the town the authority to levy fines against violators of wetlands regulations. That ordinance has been tabled for several meetings, and won’t be brought raised again until April.

The town usually issues after the fact permits when it hears complaints from neighbors, people in town, or the enforcement officer spots something, Szufnarowski said. The town will then ask the property owner apply for a permit, and remediate any problems. A cease and desist order comes when the property owner doesn’t cooperate when asked to apply for an after-the-fact permit, he said.

“A lot of the after-the-fact permits, and the cease and desist orders, these aren’t kids with their hands in the cookie jar – these are pretty major violations and property owners that have been uncooperative, and we bring them in kicking and screaming, and a lot of them are contested,” Szufnarowski said. “We’re trying to avoid that.”

The town’s new enforcement officer Bob Doane – previously the town engineer – said that closer enforcement following procedures prescribed by the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protect will hopefully reduce the need for after the fact permits. 

Doane said he was recently called to a site being paved that was partially in wetlands. He said that he asked the owner of the property to remove that part, which they began to remove within a day.

A fine would be the fourth step on the state’s standards for  wetlands enforcement, after first making contact, next sending a warning letter, and then issuing a notice of violation. Towns are authorized by state law to impose fines after that point, followed by a permit suspension or revocation, and finally court action, Doane explained.

Szufnarowski said he had been on the wetlands commission for over 10 years, and they have not been following the state’s suggested procedures. He agreed that the results were usually better when they followed state guidelines.

Doane said the spike in after-the-fact permits may, in part, be due to more enforcement. Another factor, he said, is a general lack of knowledge of wetlands regulations.

“I don’t want to disparage anybody, but the feeling is that we can go ahead and do the work, and typically we get away with it, as the applicant,” Doane said.

Needleman agreed that he didn’t know about wetlands regulations when he first moved to Essex, and thought that if you own the property, you can mow the lawn and clear the property. Other people moving from cities may think the same way, so education is important, he said.

Needleman told CT Examiner that he wanted to delay a decision on whether to impose a fine until Doane has more time to see if following state guidelines resolves the problem without having to resort to fines.

“We had one situation, that’s not the fault of anyone in town, with somebody apparently flagrantly violating wetlands ordinance, and even when we told them to stop, they didn’t listen,” Needleman said. 

He said he understands why the wetlands commission wants the option to issue a fine to avoid going to court, but Needleman said the Board of Selectmen will wait to see how the town’s newly-restructured building department works before making any changes.

“I’m not necessarily in favor of jumping the gun on it, because when you create a local authority – the same with a parking authority – you have to have a process, and someone to adjudicate it, somebody’s got to have the ability to appeal it, so I tend to stay away from things like that if we can avoid them,” Needleman said.

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