Essex BOS Delays Action on Added Enforcement Option for Wetlands Commission
After lengthy discussion, the Essex Board of Selectmen (BOS) voted unanimously on Jan. 6 to delay action on a proposed change to the town’s Inland Wetlands & Watercourses Commission’s (IWWC) ordinance.
Approval of the amendment to the existing ordinance would have added an enforcement option in the IWWC regulations, by allowing the IWWC to charge violators up to $1,000 in fines, before taking matters to superior court, which is a costly endeavor for the town.
The BOS plans to take the amendment up at its Wednesday, March 3 meeting and to engage more citizens at a town meeting or public hearing on the amendment later in the spring, as the level of positive COVID-19 cases are expected to decline.
At the meeting, Selectman Bruce Glowac discussed the need for greater citizen input and “the timing of passing an ordinance with a fine attached to it during a time where very few people are in touch with what’s going on in local government other than health issues.”
He added that the appointment of a new wetlands enforcement officer (WEO), Robert “Bob” Doane, which occurred at the commission’s Dec. 8, 2020 meeting, could potentially make a difference in what has been a recent uptick in after-the-fact permits and cease-and-desist orders.
“I would like to see him, no pun intended, get his feet wet, a little bit more and to see if that makes any difference in the numbers of violations or remediations,” said Glowac.
To start the meeting, IWWC Chair Fred Szufnarowski shared data from 2016 to 2020 on the number of permits, after-the-fact permits, and cease-and-desist orders issued by the commission.
The data showed a decline in standard permits, from 19 in 2016 to 11 in 2020, with a sharp increase in after-the-fact permits, from 3 in 2016 to 8 in 2020. The share of permits being after-the-fact permits increased from 16 percent in 2016 to 73 percent in 2020.
The number of cease-and-desist orders also showed a steady increase.
Although there have been several recent cases of uncooperative property owners, Doane explained that two factors may have contributed to the increases.
He said, “increased enforcement and also… a general lack of knowledge of the wetland regulations” may have caused the uptick.
Szufnarowski who had said earlier in the meeting that the procedure outlined by the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection for warning violators had not previously been followed by the commission, added that “we would have hope that if we start following them, things will get better.”
Szufnarowski explained that the more recent “after-the-fact permits and the cease-and-desist orders, these aren’t kids with their hands in the cookie jar.
“These have been pretty major violations, property owners that have been uncooperative, and we bring them kicking and screaming, a lot of them are contested, we’re trying to avoid that” by being granted the authority to impose a fine on violators, he said.
First Selectman Norman Needleman discussed the ramifications of violating the authority of other municipal agents, such as the fire marshal or building official.
Needleman said “some people, because there is no fear about what can happen, because they understand the town is always going to be reluctant to go to superior court,” will continue undertaking activities in violation of IWWC regulations.
“I’m concerned with some of the more recent cases that we have more of a problem than in the past,” said Needleman.
IWWC Vice Chair Andre “Andy” Roussel said that the fine would be another “tool” for the commission “to motivate the property owner” and that without it, “our recourse becomes that really big leap to superior court.”
At the end of the meeting, Needleman acknowledged the need for “something in between cease-and-desist and superior court.”
Needleman asked Doane, until further action can be taken on the amendment, to inform any uncooperative citizens that the town is considering it, which can potentially be applied retroactively, per Town Attorney David Royston.
“We hate to think that we are a town where the sledgehammer of a fine is going to be a necessary component of enforcement, but…believe it or not, they do work,” said Needleman.