Inland Wetland Commission receives 'Commission of the Year' honors from CACIWC
By Annie Gentile
VERNON — The Connecticut Association of Conservation & Inland Wetlands Commissions (CACIWC) has named the Vernon Inland Wetlands Commission as its Commission of the Year.
The Annual Recognition Award presented on Saturday, Nov. 5, in Wallingford, was given in recognition of the diligent efforts the Vernon commission put forth over the past two years in reviewing three sequential "big box" retail development proposals and their potential impact on the Tankerhoosen and Hockanum Rivers.
Vernon Town Planner Thomas Joyce, with the encouragement of CACIWC Executive Director Ann Letendre, nominated this commission for the award.
Joyce wrote in his nomination application, "I was most impressed with how the commission members grasped the importance of these decisions to both the environmental community and the development community... As the town planner, I understand the importance of making fair decisions with consistent criteria. This commission had a challenging responsibility in managing the often strenuous public hearings and maintaining fairness and balance throughout the process. Their dedication to making good and fair decisions within statutory time limitations was exemplary. It was an extraordinary effort."
The three "big box" applications, presented back-to-back, included two separate applications for a Wal-Mart and another for a Home Depot, each of which demanded countless hours of commission meetings in order to hear all the testimony from the applicants, interveners, and the public, all within mandated statutory time frames.
In his nomination application, Joyce wrote that in one "big box" application, it was necessary for the commission to meet a total of 18 times over two months - in some cases holding three or four meetings in a single week.
Inland Wetlands Commission Chair Ralph Zahner concurred, saying that in the last two years, his commissioners spent approximately 100 hours on each of the Wal-Mart and Home Depot applications, including some Saturday meetings. Additionally, the developer for the Home Depot proposal, Diamond 67, appealed the commission's decision to deny their application, requiring the commission to put in additional time to review their records and give substantial evidence supporting their denial.
Zahner said the Inland Wetlands Commission is traditionally the hardest, most difficult commission for a developer to get through, largely because they are dealing with nature and science where there are not always absolutes. The nature of their work requires commissioners to listen to often contradictory testimony from applicants and interveners, and to make thoughtful decisions.
Zahner added that it is not uncommon for Inland Wetlands' decisions to be challenged in court, and so they must have the evidence to support their decisions.
'Tom Joyce has been the biggest asset that we have," Zahner added. "He has been fantastic in his assistance and direction."
Besides Zahner, there are four other regular commissioners on Vernon's Inland Wetlands Commission - Stephen Taylor, Steven Peterson, Kimberly Glenney Petrin, and Joanne Wiley - and two alternates, Harry Thomas and Jane Seymour.
In addition to the applications that have come before the commission, Zahner said that over the last two or three years, they have made a concerted effort and major goal to hold an extra meeting each month for a "workshop" to study the current regulations and make needed revisions.
Another big accomplishment this year, Zahner said, was to lobby for a full-time dedicated staff member putting in significant time to policing wetlands plans and decisions. That position was recently filled in the last town budget.
"The hardest thing to do as an individual is to forget about your feelings and follow your charge," said Zahner, who will be stepping down from the commission at the end of the year. Zahner said that during his tenure, he refused to let politics get involved in any of the commission's decisions, and would respectfully cut off debate if the discussion was not applicable to their charge.
Zahner added that he is particularly proud of the current commission because they have an excellent cross-section of people, which allows for good debate and thoughtful discussion.
"The balance we have now [on the commission] is the best balance we have ever seen," said Zahner. "It's the reason I'm so proud of my tenure here."