Minutes of the December 17, 2008 meeting of the Council on Environmental Quality, held in the Russell Room, 3rd Floor, 79 Elm St., Hartford.

PRESENT: Barbara Wagner (Chair), Thomas Harrison (retiring Chair), M. Howard Beach, Bruce Fernandez, John Mandyck, Earl Phillips, Richard Sherman, Ryan Suerth, Norman VanCor, Wesley Winterbottom, Karl Wagener (Executive Director), Peter Hearn (Environmental Analyst).

The meeting was convened at 10:07 AM.   A quorum was present.

No modifications were suggested to the draft minutes of the November 20, 2008 meeting. VanCor motioned to approve the November minutes. Fernandez seconded. The minutes were approved with Mandyck abstaining because he had not been at that meeting.

Chairman’s Report

Harrison stated he wished all the Council Members to know that his tenure as Chair was most enjoyable and rewarding for him. He said it was a privilege working with the Council and staff and will miss the members professionally and personally.

New Chair Wagner thanked Harrison for the work he did building the Council’s respect and visibility. Her goal, as chair, is to continue the work he has done. Harrison was presented with an Official Statement from Governor Rell and a certificate of appreciation from the Council and a book signed by all the Council members.

Executive Director’s Report

Wagener presented the 2009 meeting schedule that had been approved by the Council and reminded them that it is also on the Council’s website. He handed out a reprint from a page of the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP’s) 2008 Hypoxia Monitoring Report for Long Island Sound. It showed a continuing trend of extended hypoxia and increasing water temperature and thermal stratification in the Sound. Mandyck suggested adding an indicator of water temperature, given its importance to oxygen levels, to the annual report. Members agreed.

Wagener reminded members that it was exactly four years since the Council had been briefed on the threat of “sudden oak death.”  While the disease is not known to have taken hold in Connecticut, he noted that it is doing much damage in England where some experts are predicting catastrophic consequences.  Wagener also mentioned that that the DEP, in conjunction with the University of Connecticut, has hired an invasive species coordinator, which was a longstanding Council recommendation.

Wagener reported on League of Conservation Voter’s annual conference where the theme was very much influenced by the difficult financial times. Wagner, Harrison and Hearn were also there.  Savings that could be achieved in Connecticut through smart growth and regionalism were a prominent theme of legislators, along with energy efficiency and green jobs.

Similar priorities were seen in the subcommittee reports of the Legislature’s Smart Growth Working Group, which were released last week. The recommendations emphasized transit-oriented development, increased regional cooperation among towns and decreased reliance on town property taxes.

Wagener said he was invited to sit in on a meeting sponsored by Rep. Denise Merrill to discuss a proposal for a tax on plastic bags. He pointed out that Council staff has done no research on this topic and asked Council members if any had input. The Council recommended Wagener attend to learn more about the proposal.

Wagener announced that the Bond Commission approved five million for farmland preservation and that the Department of Agriculture purchased development rights from five farms using previously approved money.  He said 2008 appears to have been a good year for farmland preservation.

Citizen Complaints

Wagener said the Council received a complaint regarding the fact that the Millstone nuclear plant had been operating under an “emergency authorization” for the last 11 years. An emergency authorization is issued at the DEP Commissioner’s discretion and requires no public hearing or public input.  Although the permit was now being addressed as an NPDES application under the Clean Water Act, the extension of such an authorization for so long a period is contrary to the purpose of emergency authorizations and is worthy of Council note.  Members concurred. The citizen raised other questions as well, and Wagener said he anticipated being able to reply to all of them.

Wagener reported that the Council had been sent copies of a complaint to other state officials about pending applications for a recycling facility in Shelton, where it is locally controversial.  The DEP requires proof of local zoning approval, and Council staff was determining what constitutes such proof for the DEP.

Review of State Agency Actions

New Haven - Hartford - Springfield Commuter Rail Service, Environmental Impact Evaluation – Wagener attended a scoping meeting in New Haven regarding the proposed expansion of passenger rail service between New Haven and Springfield. He reported that the project definitely requires an EIE because of its size.  It includes two new stations, a parallel track installation and more than 1,000 new parking spaces. It is vastly complicated since all existing freight lines must agree to the new service and much rescheduling will be required. The shift to night time freight operations and increased volume at grade crossings may incur community opposition.  The EIE is projected to be finished in 2009.

Public Act 490 (Use Value Taxation) – Following up further on comments received at the October public forum in New London, Wagener reiterated that Public Act 490 has no minimum acreage requirement in the law. It is up to each town to determine what qualifies as a farm. Some comments were about small farms being eligible for preservation, and the state’s purchase of development rights program has a 30-acre minimum.  However, the new Community Farms Preservation Program allows the Department of Agriculture to buy the development rights of smaller farms, though the program has not yet been funded. 

Members also discussed the concept of extending PA 490 taxation to landowners who might not farm profitably but create habitat.  Mandyck and Phillips expressed concern about the possibility of landowner abuse of biodiversity farming designation. Sherman said an approved management plan would have to be a requirement.

Chair Wagner said it would require an analysis of the tax implications of such a change on the towns. Phillips said it could result in large estates being taken off the tax rolls in wealthy towns if the landowners created a little habitat. Fernandez thought that this issue crossed with the issue of wetlands in which towns are acting to preserve lands that are already protected by other state laws. Chair Wagner said that an estimate of the impact on towns would require an estimate of how many acres are potentially involved, which led to a discussion of the deficiencies of this data in Connecticut.

Wagener said that a 2004 law required that each town report to the DEP the amount of farmland, forest land and open space designated under PA 490. However, the DEP has only been collecting data on forests, and the Office of Policy and Management only collects farm data from each town in land value not in acres.

Wagener said that he also noted the lack of data, unrelated to PA 490, about preserved lands including conservation easements.  An effective land conservation strategy is difficult to design without this information.  It could be easily obtained from towns via electronic submissions; Wagener suggested that most towns would submit reports of acquisitions and easements voluntarily.  The council directed staff to send a letter to the State Forester urging collection of acreage data on farmland and open space designated under PA 490, as required by statute, as a first step.

Discussion and Possible Approval of Brief Report on Council Recommendations

Wagener referred the Council to a draft document that had been mailed to them earlier. Wagener asked for suggestions so that it could be sent to the legislature pursuant to the Council’s legislative mandate, under Sec. 22a-12 to submit “a program for remedying the deficiencies of existing programs and activities together with recommendations for legislation”. A number of modifications were suggested including the addition of graphics to more simply represent the data, emphasis on the check-list aspect of the summary and a way of indicating that the order on the document did not imply a priority of needs. Chair Wagner said emphasis must be on the action needed by the legislature. A discussion of the recommendation of a saltwater fishing license followed. Wagener said a fee likely would be imposed by the federal government if the state did not adopt one and this left no reason for the state not to impose it. The Council voted to approve the draft with the modifications suggested.

Discussion of Council Priorities for 2009

Chair Wagner said she would like to have further discussion about Council priorities at the January 2009 meeting and asked all members to send to Wagener a list of the priorities they thought most important. Mandyck said he believed the special reports that the Council has produced to be very valuable and wants to see them continued.

There being no further business, a motion to adjourn was requested by Chair Wagner. The motion was made by Mandyck and seconded by VanCor. Adjournment was at 11:49 AM.