Minutes of the October 24, 2007 meeting of the Council on Environmental Quality, held in the Holcombe Conference Room, 79 Elm St., Hartford.
PRESENT: Thomas Harrison (Chairman), Howard Beach, Richard Sherman, Norman VanCor, Karl Wagener (Executive Director), Peter Hearn (Environmental Analyst).
GUEST: Philip Prelli, Commissioner of Agriculture
Chairman Harrison called the meeting to order at 9:07 AM.
Executive Director’s Report
Wagener reported that he was requested to submit a budget option for FY09 that would allow for a 5% reduction. If this reduction is implemented it will mean no funds for a printed annual report.
Wagener mentioned he had visited the Sound School and had a very impressive brochure and CD about their work to distribute to the Council members.
He said that the town of Old Saybrook had created what he believes is the first municipal Council On Environmental Quality to advise the Board of Selectmen on environmental issues, specifically energy related issues.
In follow up to the discussion, at the last meeting, on the Hartford Courant’s article about pollution discharges into Connecticut’s rivers, Wagener said that Environment Connecticut has released a separate report stating that 74% of the 108 facilities that discharge into the state’s rivers had violated their permit limits at least once, and that this chronic non-compliance hinders the state’s efforts to reach its clean water goals.
Wagener said that in a recent Forbes article Connecticut was ranked as the sixth greenest state in the nation, in a survey that was based mostly on the carbon footprint of residents and energy consumption. In recent press releases the Governor’s office announced the preservation of 1,700 acres through open space grants and the Department of Agriculture reached agreements to preserve eleven farms so far in 2007.
State subsidy of development on prime agricultural land
Commissioner of Agriculture F. Philip Prelli was invited to speak to the Council about the apparent problem of state subsidies going to development projects that eliminate prime agricultural land. Chairman Harrison welcomed Commissioner Prelli with a short review of the work of the Council and its legislative authority. Chairman Harrison explained that the reason for the invitation was the apparent contradiction between the Small Town Economic Assistance Program (STEAP) process and the clear legislative and executive policy to preserve farmland. STEAP grants are being awarded without regard to the presence of prime farmlands in the areas to be developed with the grant funds.
The Commissioner began his remarks with the observation that he knew well the work of the Council from his 12 years in the legislature and as former member of the Environment Committee there. He said the problem with STEAP is that by the time it is awarded it has been preceded by changes in the town zoning and Conservation and Development Plans and may have already been sold to a developer. At that point it is too late to preserve the acreage for farming because the farm will be surrounded by development and much of the infrastructure need to support farming will be gone. Also once the zoning has changed and development started the cost of the land escalates making it an unlikely choice for state acquisition due to the limited funds available for purchase.
He said this is an area where the Responsible Growth Task Force may make a difference. Among the ideas that the task force will discuss is a mitigation requirement for farmland that will be similar to what wetlands have now. If a developer wishes to destroy x acres of farmland x acres will have to be preserved elsewhere.
VanCor said he found the Commissioner’s remarks to be discouraging and asked where is the breakdown in procedures that prevents farmland from being preserved now. Commissioner Prelli described how the farmland preservation program works currently and under what circumstances the state is offered farms. He said that with more staff he would be able to better educate farmers about the farmland preservation option available to them. However in spite of a small staff he has been able to streamline the process and the goal is to take no more than a year to acquire a farm. He has changed funding to create a revolving fund that allows him to begin preliminary acquisition work without waiting for bonding authorization. And the current bonding proposal contains five million for acquisition, which he would like to see.
VanCor said he would like the Council play a role in preventing state subsidized farmland loss. Wagener said the state Plan for Conservation and Development is binding on state agencies and, under CGS Section 22-6 all projects that would adversely impact prime agricultural land have to be approved by the Commissioner. The problem lay in STEAP grants that have already been approved by the time they get to the Commissioner who has the authority to stop other projects that go the usual route to bonding. Sherman said that in a time when we are dependent on foreign oil to grow and distribute food there must be a change in thinking. Farmland has to be recognized as a strategic resource and that agricultural preservation is not a luxury that can be done after economic development. Commissioner Prelli agreed saying that agriculture is an economic generator and that many types of agriculture are not recognized and supported by towns. He mentioned nurseries and horses as examples.
Sherman asked about long term strategic plans addressing the state’s needs for farms and any projected shortfalls. Commissioner Prelli said that long term planning has been difficult with the small staff at the Department. Sherman also queried whether the Department of Agriculture has programs to encourage the use of local produce and products in state operated facilities. The Commissioned described three: classes for chefs, farm to schools and a program at UCONN to supply the school. He also mentioned a program to put together farmers in need of land with owners of appropriate land.
Beach said that towns need to do more with zoning to encourage farming. The Commissioner agreed. However he pointed out that the trend has been to eliminate agricultural and rural zones; and his department just commented on such a proposal in Monroe. A positive trend is the establishment of agriculture commissions in towns which he said could advise the selectmen about how zoning and town policies would affect the agricultural economy.
Chairman Harrison thanked Commissioner Prelli for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak to the Council about this important issue and offered the assistance of the Council in any way that the Commissioner thought they could collaborate on solutions.
Chairman Harrison invited Jiff Martin, New England Field Representative of the American Farmland Trust, to comment on the problem of farmland loss in Connecticut. She mentioned that her organization produced two documents that are relevant to the issue: Planning for Agriculture in Connecticut Municipalities and Conservation Options Guide. She said she expected their recommendations for the next legislative session would be to discourage state subsidies for development that will displace farmlands. In response to Sherman’s question, she said that in the 1970’s there were studies that indicated 130,000 acres would be needed to feed 30% of the state’s population. To date only 30,000 are protected. She said that the mitigation idea of the Commissioner of Agriculture could be a useful preservation step, but only if it were dollar for dollar not acre for acre. She also endorsed the idea of getting the Commissioner of Agriculture into the loop sooner with regard to STEAP grants. Sherman asked if preservation of farmland is the priority over preservation of farms. She said yes. Because farmland can go fallow; but can always be put back into production so long as it has not been lost to other uses. Sherman asked her if use of local foods by the state and Yale would be a stimulus to agriculture. She responded that there has not been a study of this and there may be some weak links in the distribution and processing chain that would need strengthening. Wagener asked her if the Food Policy Council could be of value in developing a statewide food utilization plan.
Steve Reviczky, Executive Director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association said he agreed that state money should not subsidize projects that would eliminate farms and that there is value to preserving small farms that are close to urban centers.
Review of State Agency Projects
Cromwell Business Park -- Wagener said that, following the instructions of the Council, he edited the comments on the Environmental Impact Evaluation (EIE) for the Cromwell project to make the Council’s assessment of the document clearer. He said Hearn and he had met with staff at the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) to discuss the Council’s comments. He said the DECD staff was very informative and forthright, but that the meeting did not result in major changes to the Council’s understanding of the project. He said he was dismayed by the cost of the EIE ($190,000) and how little information it provided.
Other Projects -- He said that a Stage I Review document from the DECD was received by the Council yesterday for proposed state assistance of industrial development in Ledyard of 300 acres of land that is classified in the state Conservation and Development Policies Plan as overwhelmingly rural, preservation and conservation. He said he noted this fact in his brief comments.
The meeting was adjourned at 11:05 AM.