Minutes of the December 16, 2015 meeting of the Council on Environmental Quality, held in the Holcombe Conference Room on the fifth floor of 79 Elm Street in Hartford.

PRESENT: Susan Merrow (Chair), Alicea Charamut, Lee Dunbar, Karyl Lee Hall (by phone), Alison Hilding, Kip Kolesinskas, Karl Wagener (Executive Director), Peter Hearn (Environmental Analyst).

At 9:45 AM, Chair Merrow convened the meeting, noting a quorum.

Chair Merrow asked for approval of the agenda. Dunbar made a motion to approve the agenda which was seconded by Charamut and approved unanimously.

Chair Merrow asked for a motion to approve the minutes of November 12, 2015. Dunbar made a motion to approve the minutes. This was seconded by Hall and approved unanimously

Chair’s Report

Chair Merrow said she had sad news: A former member of the Council and champion of the environment, Terry Backer, had died. Discussion followed with many recounting, fondly, interactions with Mr. Backer and anecdotes of his advocacy. Wagener said that noting his contribution to environmental protection both as a legislator and as Soundkeeper would be appropriate in this year’s annual report. All agreed.

Chair Merrow welcomed the two new members to the Council, Charamut and Kolesinskas. She asked if they would introduce themselves, which they did, offering a brief summary of their experience and interests.

Hilding arrived.

Executive Director’s Report

Wagener said that the Council’s budget was reduced by $1,000 in the governor’s proposed budget for FY 2016, leaving virtually nothing in the Council’s budget for non-salary expenses. In response to a question from Dunbar, he said that the appropriations for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) were reduced, and distributed a summary sheet of those reductions by program and budget category. Charamut added that the specifics of some of the cuts will mean that there will not be staff to deal with terrestrial invasive species. Charamut also discussed the little-known fiscal implications of closing hatcheries (which was not done), specifically the way in which DEEP’s revenues are tied to the number of licensed anglers. A short discussion followed regarding the different level of cuts for various programs. Dunbar added that federal priorities often dictate state policy because of the attached funding.

Wagener said that the Connecticut Audubon Society’s State of the Birds report had been released for this year. It contains many articles that focus on land conservation. It also documents what the Council had concluded from its forest bird indicators – they are on the decline in Connecticut. It included articles on the importance of the Green Plan, and he said that he invited DEEP to discuss the proposed Green Plan at a future Council meeting.

Citizen Complaints

Wagener said that, following the brief discussion at the previous meeting about the Tier One Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Northeast Rail Corridor, he had received questions and comments from Audubon Connecticut, particularly regarding the potential impacts of the inland route on preserved lands, including state forests and Audubon sanctuaries; he explained that the EIS lays out three broad routes for rail improvements and for high speed rail transportation along the northeast corridor. Because it is a Tier One analysis it is designed to get feedback from interested parties regarding the suggested routings. He said that DEEP is expected to comment on the EIS and expects there will be some reference to land impacts. Kolesinskas agreed that the maps in the EIS made it difficult to assess the specific impacts. He observed that increasing public access to mass transportation, which is greatly needed, can expand suburban sprawl if the transit nodes are in unserved areas, because people will travel to get to those nodes and be able to easily commute to areas previously inaccessible. Hall asked if the links to the EIS could be re-sent since she would like to review it again. Hilding noted the importance of getting people out of their cars. Wagener said that the intent of the high speed rail option would be to get people out of planes as well. Dunbar said the expenditure is so vast, he expects fruition will be far in the future. Wagener said the question then is whether the Council wishes to merely watch developments on this front or to write comments on the proposals. The consensus was to keep watch on the project. There also was discussion of the impacts of sea level rise on the coastal route.

Chair Merrow suggested rearranging the agenda in order to accommodate the people who had arrived for the discussion of the draft report on mining, stormwater and related issues.. The Council agreed.

Discussion of Draft Report on Mining and Stormwater Issues

Chair Merrow welcomed Mr. Greg Walwer of ACS to address the Council. He introduced himself, explaining that his company is a private company that consults about archaeological issues. He said that there are many federal and state programs for which an archaeological investigation is required. Under federal law stormwater control was delegable to the states, who determine how it will be implemented. In Connecticut, the stormwater construction general permit includes a requirement for a site review to determine if the site has areas of potential historical or archaeological significance. This initial inquiry was deliberately left in the hands of the developer in the interest of efficiency. The process, though quick and simple for a professional, can be confounding for a non-professional. He recommends that all these reviews be sent to the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). Dunbar asked how long it would take a professional to conduct the initial inquiry in contrast to the time it would take a professional to do the same work. Mr. Walwer estimated that a professional could do in ten minutes what it could take a novice, following the guidelines in the stormwater general permit, an hour to complete. Dunbar next asked what percentage of registrations for the stormwater general permit indicate a site of potential significance. Mr. Walwer estimated it was about 20 percent. He added that only about 20 percent of those show actual significance.

Dr. Walwer said he agreed with the draft recommendations in the draft report. He distributed a brief list of questions and suggestions he had regarding the report. Among his recommendations were that all stormwater permit registrations be online. The current process requires the developer to provide registration information upon request of the public, which unnecessarily delays the process.  He said that electronic registrations should not be deemed complete without inclusion of site maps as well as maps of where the site is relative to surrounding properties. Wagener agreed that the maps can be confounding since they don’t always locate the buildings relative to surroundings. Dr. Walwer agreed, pointing out that a large site that has significance might only have construction planned for the portion with no significance, and that could be easily determined if site maps and location maps are required.

He outlined what he believed to be the best strategies for accomplishing a better review process within the stormwater permit process. Dr. Walwer cited a number of existing state programs that routinely refer to SHPO for site review and asserted that SHPO believes that it could handle the review of all stormwater registrations. He submitted three documents to the Council as illustrations of what other government agencies in the state are doing with regard to historical and archaeological screenings.

Chair Merrow thanked Dr. Walwer for taking the time to come to the Council to offer his expert advice and insight regarding the draft report. Dr. Walwer thanked the Council for the opportunity.

Discussion of Draft Recommendations on Legislation

Chair Merrow said that because this is a short legislative session, the format for the recommendations departs a bit and is briefer than in previous years. Wagener said that the recommendations were drawn from what would be needed to implement the recommendations in the draft stormwater report. Others came from Council recommendations that were expressed in prior Council meetings. The only new one is the suggestion to accelerate preservation efforts in the state, which would be discussed later in the meeting.  Dunbar asked about the process for getting the recommendations before the members of the legislature. Chair Merrow said a meeting with the co-chairs of the Environment Committee would be requested as a first step.

Wagener showed a slide of the historic rate of land acquisition by the state contrasted with the rate that would be needed to meet the state’s goal for preservation. Even if future acquisitions were of larger parcels, he showed, the preservation goal was not within reach. He said that DEEP’s goal is to acquire the parcels most suitable for preservation and it has limited resources with which to achieve that end. Many landowners interested in retaining their lands in forest or farm or open space are left without a means to accomplish that. Consequently another method is needed. Amy Patterson of the Connecticut Land Conservation Council was in the audience and was invited by Chair Merrow to speak on this topic. She expressed general support of an additional preservation method to supplement existing preservation programs, provided they are not mistaken for substitute programs. Discussion followed on funding that has been appropriated for preservation but not yet allocated by the Bond Commission. Dunbar outlined the steps needed at DEEP to effect an acquisition, and the three points in the process where action is slowed. Kolesinskas added that additional staff will be necessary if the process is to be accelerated.

Wagener said the proposal at hand is to create a pilot program to allow a maximum number of landowners to donate a conservation easement to DEEP, using a simple template form. Dunbar said that one advantage of this approach is that it comes with a built-in property manager (the landowner), relieving the state of the management and maintenance responsibilities that it struggles with on its existing properties. Potential problems were discussed. Ms. Patterson added that a challenge to adoption would be if the bill led to a fiscal note, meaning that it would generate a cost to the state government. Hall said she is in favor of the idea provided it does not put the existing PA 490 tax relief program in jeopardy. Kolesinskas said that the legislature’s Tax Review Committee had just recommended reducing the eligibility of properties for the PA 490 program, which led to some discussion. At this point Hilding had to leave.

Chair Merrow asked what is needed at this point to continue to pursue the concept. Wagener said that he needs to get the sense of the Council of whether it wishes staff to further explore the idea. Dunbar urged getting the idea out to the state’s land trusts for feedback and to further explore the tax deductibility issues. It was the consensus of the Council that the concept should be included on the draft list of recommendations for public comment, that it must be made clear that this is a supplement to existing program not a substitute and that the public should be encouraged to comment.

Chair Merrow added that this year, due to time pressure, the Council might seek public input on its legislative agenda electronically, rather than in a public meeting as had been held in past years.

Review of Annual Report Topics, Including Recommendations

Wagener said that there is now a new Conservation and Management Plan for Long Island Sound. He said at first glance it appears to have goals and targets that are quite general, but the appendix explains that the targets are very specific mathematically. He said that many of the specific targets can be adopted for use in the Council’s annual report, including hypoxia, beach closings and others. He said staff will work on determining how these can be incorporated into the annual report indicators. Dunbar asked if the Governor’s Council on Climate Change is creating indicators; Wagener said yes, and staff will examine its metrics.

Review of State Agency Actions

Wagener said there are no environmental impact evaluations nor Siting Council solicitations to be considered

There being no further business, Chair Merrow asked for an adjournment motion, which was made by Hall. Dunbar seconded and the meeting adjourned at 12:03 PM.