Minutes of the December 16, 2009 meeting of the Council on Environmental Quality held in the Holcombe Conference Room of 79 Elm St., Hartford, CT.  

PRESENT: Barbara Wagner (Chair), Howard Beach, Janet Brooks, Bruce Fernandez, John Mandyck, Earl Phillips, Norman VanCor, Karl Wagener (Executive Director), Peter Hearn (Environmental Analyst).

Chair Wagner convened the meeting at 9:09 AM, noting the presence of a quorum.

Chair Wagner asked if there were any clarifications or revisions of the minutes of the meeting of November 18, 2009. Brooks asked for a clarification regarding the budget discussion on page two as to whether “five percent” was meant where it read “five years”. Percent was the correct meaning. VanCor motioned to approve subject to that revision. The motion was seconded by Beach and approved unanimously with Fernandez abstaining because he had not been present.

Executive Director’s Report

Members discussed the “environmental literacy” quiz. Mandyck suggested putting the quiz on the web site. Wagener said there might be a copyright issue with that, but that a quiz on Connecticut issues could be created. Brooks said a Connecticut quiz would be better because for power generation and waste disposal the Connecticut answers are different than the national ones. Wagner agreed and asked staff if something like that could be researched.

Wagener said that staff received recent wetlands data from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) after the November meeting.  He said the DEP is now posting on its website the number of decisions reported by each town, so the reader can see which towns fail to report; about 20 to 25 towns still fail to report each year.

Wagener said the Department of Transportation (DOT) mapped and digitized the roadside “scenic strips” which the Council re-discovered earlier in the year. This makes their location accessible to the public and to state agencies that are looking to find them.   In response to a question from Brooks, Wagener said the data are believed by the DOT to be complete or nearly so.

Mandyck made a motion to add the topic of the potential sale of the Seaside property in Waterford to the meeting agenda, as complaints and inquiries had been received from citizens.  It was seconded by Fernandez and approved by the Council to be discussed later in the meeting.

Wagener referred back to the August meeting when the Hawleyville Environmental Advocacy Team spoke about a proposal to transfer and ship municipal waste along tracks controlled by the Housatonic Railroad Company Inc. Federal law changed in 2008 to give states the authority to regulate these activities and the railroad has applied to the DEP for a permit. This is the first such application received by the DEP.

VanCor asked if the addition to the annual report of an indicator for stream flow was still being considered. Wagener answered “yes” and that staff will be looking at data to see what is available to create a useful indicator.

The Role of the DEP in Connecticut Siting Council (CSC) Decisions

Chair Wagner introduced Brian Golembiewski, the DEP staff member who, for the last two years, has been the DEP Commissioner's designee on the CSC.  He had been invited to explain the role of the DEP in the siting process, especially with regard to issues involving scenic impact.  Mr. Golembiewski explained that the review process at the DEP was designed to separate him from the deliberations within the DEP about the impacts of a specific project. Notice of a project is sent to all the departments in the DEP prior to a hearing. Comments are returned to personnel within the environmental review office but not to him. Official comments are generated by staff for submission to the CSC. He has no input into these deliberations. S. Derek Phelps, Executive Director of the CSC was in the audience and added that the reason for this is to guarantee that all the Siting Council members have the same information upon which to base decisions, and that all the information upon which those decisions are made can be part of the public record.

Questions from Council members showed a concern regarding the increasing frequency of complaints about cell towers. The question was asked if there is anyone in state government who is charged with the responsibility of evaluating the general scenic impact of proposed cell towers.  Mr. Golembiewski said that the statute creating the CSC requires that it consider the scenic impact on areas of local, regional and state-wide significance. Unlike most projects that are subject to an environmental review, the cell towers generally have slight environmental impact from their construction, but have a potentially vast scenic impact because of their height. He noted that it is the DEP policy not to allow private cell towers on DEP properties.

Brooks asked if scenic impact can be weighed against public need. Mr. Golembiewski said that the CSC is precluded by federal law from questioning the need for the tower and that the application to close a gap in coverage is proof of need. He added that the CSC is precluded from considering any questions associated with the safety of the technology, provided the applicant complies with Federal Communication Commission guidelines. Mr. Golembiewski stated that most other environmental issues have been vetted before the application appears at the CSC. He said that although citizens who attend the public hearing may not question the applicant, it is his observation that the issues they raise are directed to the applicant by the CSC and the responses are included in the record. He said that the hearing record remains open for 30 days after the hearing for additional information and comment. Melanie Bachman, attorney for the CSC, who was also in the audience, added that if additional substantive information surfaced after this time the hearing could be re-opened.

Mandyck asked several questions about scenic areas in the state and if there is a need to define such areas. Mr. Golembiewski said each application includes a viewshed map and that he considers the impact on state and municipal trails, scenic roads, parks and also neighborhoods as part of his own review of applications.  He did not know if broad agreement could be reached on a definition of scenic; in general, it is case-by-case.  Brooks asked if any DEP staff were expert in scenic values; the answer was no, other than what was gained through experience.

Wagner asked if it were correct to summarize that there is no specific guidance on scenic issues and there are no areas that have been designated scenic. Mr. Golembiewski said that there are areas in the state’s coastal zone that are subject to review and that policies pertain to ridgelines.  Wagner said that the DEP appears to have two roles in CSC decisions, one as landowner of parks and forests and one as general protector of the environment.

VanCor said that the Council has received complaints that government at all levels is unresponsive to citizens’ objections to the towers.  Mr. Golembiewski said that town governments can make a difference with regard to informing the citizen about the pending application and in planning in advance for the arrival of towers. Woodstock, for example, formed a committee to identify good and bad areas for towers.  He said that public notice can be problematic if the town does not choose to publicize the proposal for the tower.  The legally required newspaper notice could be an increasingly irrelevant method of communicating this information.  Citizens can be involved in the process by becoming parties or interveners but that is an expensive option; just speaking up at a meeting usually is not sufficient to defeat an application.

Mr. Golembiewski said that in the CEQ's previous comments about scenic impacts improved his appreciation of the issue.   Mr. Phelps added that the CSC is always looking at methods to improve the process and that there is an application guideline that goes to all applicants with a list of information that the CSC would like to have included. If there is application information that the Council would like to see that is not in the list the Council should make this known to the CSC.  Mr. Phelps also stated that the DEP representative is a critically important member of the CSC, and praised Mr. Golembiewski's performance to date.

Wagner thanked Mr. Golembiewski, Mr. Phelps and Ms. Bachman for taking their valuable time to discuss this important topic.

Mandyck said he is satisfied with the ways in which the adjudicatory process is kept objective, but he is not convinced that defining scenic criteria would be an impossible task.  One approach, he said, would be to list impacts that must be evaluated if they exceed certain thresholds.  Brooks expressed concern that there are not objective or permanent scenic standards and that in the future a different Commissioner could show less concern about scenic preservation.   Members concurred, and wanted this topic to be placed on the January agenda.

Citizen Complaints

Merritt Parkway Tree-cutting and Landscaping – Hearn was asked to report on the December 2nd public information meeting that was held by the DOT in Fairfield. The DOT began the meeting with a Power Point presentation about the restoration work. The DOT explained that many categories of trees and shrubs would be removed including: white pines that had grown to be too tall for the parkway, insect-damaged ash, black locust, trees that had been damaged by disease, insects or vehicles, trees or shrubs that obscured architectural detail on bridges and overpasses, trees and shrubs that interfered with regrading and all invasive plants. Replacement plants would be native shrubs that would have a two year replacement warranty.

Hearn said that there were fewer than 30 persons in attendance. About 6 people spoke. The majority were members of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy. The comments can be summarized as expressing the following:

  • Skepticism based on prior DOT actions along the Parkway that the project will be well executed.
  • Preference that the clearing of vegetation be less extensive and be accomplished in stages.
  • Concern about the visual impact on drivers and on homeowners where the roadside was being cleared up to the back yards.
  • Dismay that the experts on the Merritt Parkway Conservancy were not solicited to provide free advice to the DOT in the design phase of the project.

Council members asked if the public notice of the project been required and if it had been adequate. Hearn said that it was required and hearings had been held in 2002.  Mandyck suggested that the gap between the hearings and the project commencement was excessive. Wagner said that a time window for such projects could be worth considering so the public would not be surprised by the onset of construction.  Hearn said that there had been a press conference prior to much of the work that had been attended by the Vice President Biden.  Phillips said that a time lag of this duration was not uncommon in publicly funded infrastructure projects. Wagner, Brooks and Mandyck said they would like more information from staff about requirements for hearings and public notice for public projects and whether they expire due to age or to changing conditions. Beach added that highway encroachment permits have an expiration date.

Seaside Property Sale – Wagener recounted the history of the Seaside property and the attempt to sell it in 2007 subject to a public access provision for the beach portion.  At that time the sale was stopped before an environmental impact evaluation (EIE) had been completed.  Now the property, which is closed to the public, has appeared on a list of properties to be disposed of pursuant to the requirement in the biennial budget for agencies to sell 60 million dollars worth of assets.

Wagener said that citizens have complained that the state plan of conservation and development called for the state to acquire shoreline properties. The notice about the availability of this property simply called for proposals. There is no mention of conditions that would guarantee access. Mandyck pointed out that there is no public access now and that a sale to the private sector could result in greater access than currently exists, if that were part of the agreement.  Brooks, Wagner, VanCor and other members all agreed that a letter urging the retention of beach access would be desirable, and asked staff to draft such a letter.

Review of State Agency Actions

Wagener said that staff recommended no comments regarding proposed cell towers in Woodbridge, Glastonbury and Madison.

Wagener reported that the Oxford Airport EIE has been withdrawn.

Discussion of Council recommendations for 2010

Wagener briefly reviewed the recommendations for legislative action for the year 2010 that had been sent to the Council members prior to the meeting. Wagner said that the entire set of legislative recommendations should be the priority item for the January meeting.  Mandyck added that it should include discussion of appropriate penalties for removing of trees from another’s property.

Meeting Schedule for 2010

Wagner asked if the Council had any objections to the draft meeting schedule for 2010 that had been sent in advance of the meeting.  There being none, Wagener said he would publish those dates.

Discussion of Indicator of the Month

Due to time constraints Wagner asked if there were objections to postponing the discussion of annual report indicators until the next meeting.  VanCor said that was his preference since he has many questions about the indicators that were scheduled for discussion.

There being no further business Wagner asked for a motion to adjourn.  Fernandez made the motion which was seconded by VanCor and the meeting was adjourned at 11:40 AM.