Minutes of the November 28, 2007 meeting of the Council on Environmental Quality, held in the Holcombe Conference Room, 79 Elm St., Hartford.

PRESENT:  Thomas Harrison (Chairman), Howard Beach, Earl W. Phillips Jr., Richard Sherman, Norman VanCor, Barbara Wagner, Karl Wagener (Executive Director), Peter Hearn (Environmental Analyst).

GUEST:   David LeVasseur, Undersecretary, Office of Policy and Management

Chairman Harrison called the meeting to order at 9:07 AM, noting the presence of a quorum. He asked if there were any comments on the minutes for the meetings of October 24 and of September 26.  There were no corrections. VanCor moved to approve and Beach seconded.  Approved unanimously, with Winterbottom and Phillips abstaining because they had not been present.

Executive Director’s Report

Wagener stated that he would like to add two items to the agenda later and that would require an approval vote by the Council.

Wagener reported that the federal EPA had completed a review of enforcement actions by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and gave the department a favorable review.

Wagener mentioned that Carmel Zahran, the Council’s environmental intern, is working on a statistical analysis of wetlands commissions and their performance corresponding to training and other variables.

Chairman Harrison asked if Wagener had heard anything regarding the status of the budget reduction proposal that Wagener had submitted.  Wagener said he had heard nothing further.

Discussion of Responsible Growth and Development on Agricultural Land, Part I

Chairman Harrison introduced David LeVasseur, Undersecretary of the Office of Policy and Management, who had been invited to speak about responsible growth initiatives and potential conflict between stated preservation goals and state funds being used to subsidize development of prime farmland.

Secretary LeVasseur thanked the Council for the opportunity to make this presentation. He said he would explain via a power point presentation, where development was occurring in the state and the extent to which the Office of Policy and Management can influence it.  He described the importance of the state’s Plan for Conservation and Development and said that towns will be expected to keep their own conservation and development plans current to be eligible for some state funding grants in the future. 

The Undersecretary reviewed the accomplishments of his office. These included the first full revision of the state Plan of Conservation and Development in 30 years.  An important component of this state plan is its text. The maps, he said, are often given too much importance.  Mr. LeVasseur outlined legislation from the 2007 legislative session that was pro-planning and encouraged responsible growth.  He referred everyone to the “Green and Growing” section of the web site of the Office of Responsible Growth, which can be found on line at the Office of Policy and Management site.

The Secretary passed around maps of the two farm locations that had originally prompted the concern of the Council.  He pointed out that they were prime farmland. However they were in the “hole of a donut” of development and their fate as developable property had no doubt been already determined due to the development pressure around them. Also both towns had zoned the areas where the farms are located as suitable for industrial development. 

Mr. LeVasseur said that until the Council called his attention to it his department had been unaware of the statutory requirement that the Commissioner of Agriculture comment on plans that would eliminate 25 or more acres of agricultural land before bonding proceed.  From now on his department would look closely at development proposals in agricultural areas for the presence of prime agricultural soils and refer applications to the Commissioner of Agriculture for review.  He added that his office is exploring the question of whether it is possible under existing authority to recommend mitigation when farmland is threatened with development, similar to mitigation measures required to replace wetlands.

Mr. LeVasseur said he would welcome questions and introduced three of his staff who were with him and who could help answer any questions that members of the Council may have.  The staff members were: Jeff Smith, Dan Morley and Lisa DuBois.

At Chairman Harrison suggestion all the Council members and staff introduced themselves.   Chairman Harrison asked about the practical value of the many studies the Secretary said his office was engaged in.  Mr. LeVasseur said that he believed that multiple forces were coalescing at this time that would keep these studies relevant.  Among these were: changing demographics, increased energy prices and an imminent drastic decrease in federal funding.

Phillips asked what would it take for farmland in a “growth” area to be refused state development subsidies.  Mr. LeVasseur speculated that this could happen in the case of a farm on the periphery of a developed area – i.e. not in the “donut hole” but on the edge of the “donut”.  The Secretary pointed out an apparent contradiction in legislation that governs what the Office of Policy and Management (OPM) can do. Even though the OPM is charged with the responsibility to develop the state’s Plan of Conservation and Development it is prohibited, when looking at a specific site, from considering issues beyond the site.  VanCor said that this sounds like change in legislation is needed. Chairman Harrison agreed.

Secretary LeVasseur replied that the legislature is not of one mind on responsible growth and that the future policies will require a balancing act between preservation of quality of life and maintaining economic competitiveness.  Wagener said he disagrees that balancing is called for, as attempts at balance inevitably lead to conflict and results that are less than optimal.   He said a vision of integration is better and cited Cromwell’s Plan of Development; in it there is an illustration of an industrial park along a road with an operating farm behind it.  Mr. LeVasseur said that Cromwell, and other projects that are of concern to the Council, predated the legislation that could have stalled them.  He suggested that the Council continue to remind state agencies that proposed developments are to be considered in the context of what the Plan of Conservation says about conservation and not just whether the parcel is in the appropriately colored growth area in the Conservation and Development Locational Guide map.

Chairman Harrison thanked Mr. LeVasseur for the quality and candor of his informative presentation.  He commented that the Council has always found the staff at the Office of Policy and Management to be responsive and very professional in its work and its communications with the Council.

Citizen Complaints

Wagener reported that he had received letters questioning a proposed composting facility at UCONN.  He said there could be two relevant questions.   Harrison suggested contacting UCONN for more information about it.  Sherman said it is important to find out if alternative sites were considered.

To update prior discussions about road sand and disposal, Wagener reported that he attended a conference where the DOT reported that nearly no sand was used on state roads last year, the result of a shift to anti-icing mixtures.

Review of State Agency Actions

Wagener asked for a vote to add two items to the agenda: 1) The final DEP Green Plan, 2) The newly created Office of Business Advocate.  Wagener’s request was approved by unanimous vote.

Wagener reported that the Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Plan was completed.  Its list of recommendations from the draft version has been changed to a list of commitments.  It projects the cost to the state of meeting its goal of 21% preservation.  It is improved with these changes and the addition of some planning elements.   However he still believes it is more of a description of existing programs rather than a plan of action.

Wagener informed the Council that the state’s first Business Advocate, Robert Simmons, took office earlier in the year.  He noticed two news articles in which Mr. Simmons criticized the DEP’s enforcement action against an alleged violator.  Wagener said Mr. Simmons’ comments, as reported by the newspapers, did not accurately characterize the situation and served to undermine the efforts of another state agency.   The statutory responsibilities of the advocate do not include intervening in specific enforcement cases, but Wagener said the new Office’s website lists duties that go well beyond the legislation.  Phillips and Sherman said it should be discussed further at the December meeting, and other members concurred.

Discussion of Responsible Growth and Development on Agricultural Land, Part II

There was a brief adjournment after which Jiff Martin, Project Director of the Working Lands Alliance, was granted her request to speak about the farmland preservation discussion that had been going on when Mr. LeVasseur was present.  She said that it was a mistake to believe that farmland that was “orphaned” amid development was not viable.  The Farm Bureau has documented a tremendous demand for leasable farmland. She was concerned that mitigation may not be the preservation solution some think because of the effect it would have on farmland prices.  She said that Mr. LeVasseur’s comments implied that there is an underlying score sheet by which these decisions are made; and would have liked to hear an explanation of what elements go into the decision making process at the OPM.   Chairman Harrison thanked her for her comments.  Sherman added that there is an order by which the state is to deal with adverse environmental impacts.  The order is to 1) avoid, 2) minimize, 3) mitigate.  He said the Council should be more emphatic about this in its comments.  This led to a brief discussion of Mr. LeVasseur’s presentation with a consensus that invitations to state agency administrators are of value.  The Council learns about the agency and the agency head learns how the Council perceives its policies.

Discussion Of State Spending for Environmental Protection

Wagener presented a draft of a document on status and trends in funding at the Department of Environmental Protection.  It included charts that showed DEP General Fund expenditures, including employee benefits that usually appear in the Comptrollers’ budget.  He showed that a minor portion the DEP budget came from Connecticut taxpayers. The majority came from permit fees, licenses, and federal funds.  Sherman said this was not necessarily a bad thing.  Wagener agreed saying that the Environmental Quality Fund originally was an idea advanced by the Council.  However, there is not adequate funding for crucial DEP programs.  VanCor said that the legislature would see this as an internal agency problem since they authorize the funds and it is up to the agency to determine how to spend them.  Wagener said he believes most legislators would be surprised to learn that the majority of funding goes to support parks and not the core environmental protection responsibilities of clean air, water and waste.

One of the charts in the report showed the DEP’s funding, adjusted for inflation, was slightly lower than it was in 1972.  Chairman Harrison said he would like to see figures at the next meeting on the change in number of employees and responsibilities since then.  Once this information is assembled there should be discussion within the Council about what to do if it shows underfunding that adversely affects the ability of the DEP to fulfill its mission.  Phillips said this information would be valuable to the legislators and their constituents.  Chairman Harrison said that the Council would need to find concrete targeted recommendations; and this should be a focus of next meeting’s discussions. Wagener said by then he would have information on the capital side of the budget as well.

The meeting was adjourned at 11:44 AM.