Former Inland/Wetlands chair continues to serve community
By Annie Gentile
VERNON — Ten years is a long time to serve as a volunteer member on a town board or commission. Still, when Ralph Zahner completed his 10-year tenure on the Vernon Inland Wetlands Commission in December, he told Mayor Ellen Marmer he'd be willing to serve again anywhere he could be of value and assistance.
Town charter mandates that Zahner, who served two consecutive terms on the IWC, step down from said commission for a period of at least one year. It does not, however, preclude him from serving elsewhere, which many felt would be a boon for other boards or commissions that could benefit from his expertise.
"I expect we'll see him on one of the commissions again," IWC member Stephen Taylor said recently. "He's very dedicated to the town. He loves Vernon."
Taylor's suspicions were correct. On Jan. 10, Zahner was appointed as an alternate to the Vernon Planning and Zoning Commission - a position he will hold through the end of 2008.
Of the many accolades Zahner received from his fellow commission members on the IWC, a common theme was that he brought a sense of balance between responsible development and an appreciation for natural resources. Those same attributes can be easily applied to PZC.
"He ran an awful good board with complete control," said IWC commission member Harry Thomas. "He's intelligent. He's incisive. He can cut through a lot of baloney."
A licensed land surveyor, Zahner is comfortable working in the realm of contractors, and he is familiar with many of the issues that developers bring before land use commissions.
However, in his down time, Zahner might just as easily be spotted in the early morning hours casting a fishing line into the waters of Crystal Lake.
'To me, the definition of progress is that it should be done in concert with the pristine beauty of our state," said Thomas, who said he first met Zahner through the Rockville Fish and Game Club. He said he believes Zahner shares his sentiment.
Thomas also pointed to Zahner's strong sense of propriety in his dealings with developers, saying Zahner went so far as to consider removing himself from a recent IWC application when he learned the petitioning builder was also the owner of the apartment complex in which Zahner and his wife lived.
"He's a straight shooter," said Thomas.
"[Zahner] does a very conscientious job in making sure all sides of an issue are heard," said commission member Steven Peterson. "He's been very good at guiding the petitions."
Despite those efforts, however, Zahner's skills as a leader were tested in recent years when the commission heard controversial applications for both a Wal-Mart Superstore and a Home Depot to be constructed off I-84. When the IWC denied a permit for the Home Depot project, the applicant appealed their decision. The net result was that the court determined that the commission needed to provide greater supporting evidence for their denial than was provided in their one-page determination.
Led by Zahner, the commission had to pour through 22 volumes of material to put together a more comprehensive explanation for their decision. The IWC's second denial for the Home Depot application has also been appealed.
The extensive efforts of the commission on the Home Depot and Wal-Mart applications were notably recognized when the group was honored in 2005 by the Connecticut Association of Conservation and Inland Wetlands Commissions as the "Inland Wetlands Commission of the Year."
Beyond their work on the big box applications, Peterson credits Zahner for seeing to it that the commission wrote revised regulations and also that the town hired a full-time Inland Wetlands Enforcement Officer to follow through on IWC decisions. The enforcement officer position had been approved some time earlier, but the money wasn't in the budget to put someone in place, and the role was being filled only part-time by the town engineer. Largely due to Zahner's lobbying, an enforcement officer is now in training.
Of his time served on the IWC, Zahner said he was particularly proud of the spectrum of talent on the commission in his most recent term, and expressed some disappointment that Jane Seymour, a steward of the Belding Wildlife Sanctuary, had not been reappointed.
"She was a definite asset to the commission," said Zahner, adding that he was hopeful her name might be resubmitted, and that the Town Council will seriously reconsider its decision. "I am hopeful that this council will work in the best interests of the community," Zahner said.