Legislators turn focus to environment at Audubon forum

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State Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36th) was a major part of a forum jointly sponsored by Greenwich Audubon, the Greenwich Land Trust and the town’s Conservation Commission to discuss environmental issues.
—Ken Borsuk photo

Greenwich’s legislators were all looking a bit green earlier this month, but it had nothing to do with either envy or the stomach flu. Instead they were the guests at a special legislative panel sponsored by Audubon Greenwich.

A panel of state Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36th District) and state Reps. Livvy Floren (R-149th District), Stephen Walko (R-150th District) and Fred Camillo (R-151st District) discussed the issues ahead for the new legislative session before a packed crowd for the morning forum at the YMCA of Greenwich on Feb. 7. The panel was co-sponsored by Audubon Greenwich, the Greenwich Land Trust and the town’s Conservation Commission, and the majority of the questions had an environmental theme, holding true to the missions of those organizations.

Mr. Frantz said the legislature was right to focus on the budget and the state’s gun laws after the Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown but that the environmental priorities of the state were not being ignored. He spoke about the Shoreline Task Force, which began its work about nine months ago and delivered a report last month on dealing with climate change and a potential sea level rise and how that could impact building codes and zoning regulations in the state.

“It’s a pretty good document and a good step in the right direction,” Mr. Frantz said. “We are going to do what we can for the issues that are important to the Audubon, but clearly because of the tragedy and also because of our fiscal condition we will be focused on that primarily.”

Later in the event, Mr. Frantz spoke further about the task force, which was put together after the erosion caused by all the major storms in recent years. The task force now has made its recommendations to the various state legislative committees and it’s up to them to craft legislation. Mr. Frantz said those bills will probably not come out until the end of the session.

“The whole idea of it was to figure out how to deal with more volatile weather, potential global warming or climate change and the potential for tidal rise,” Mr. Frantz said. “That’s also a very controversial issue. There are some scientists who swear the sea levels have risen by as many as eight inches in the last 25 years here and others say they haven’t seen that at all. For several months that was a point of contention for the task force to try to nail down, but what we did was come to the conclusion that in all of our directives to local planning and zoning and building departments and insurance companies [we would say] ‘… in the event of tidal rise.’ So you can see a lot of this boils down to semantics.”

Ms. Floren said the state’s fiscal issues do have an impact on what can be done, but stressed that couldn’t be used as an excuse to lessen the focus on the environment.

“As you know, these days there just isn’t any extra green in Hartford,” Ms. Floren said. “That’s not green as in grass. It’s green as in money. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us as environmentalists to make sure that our initiatives and programs are not relaxed, waived, evaded, or undermined. It’s up to us to do more with less, and we must be united. We must stand firm for clean air, clean water and clean energy and the protection and preservation of the environment. I know we can do this. We are a very powerful group and we hang together and get things done.”

Ms. Floren pledged to keep true to her concerns on environmental issues and focus on protection of open space in Connecticut and development of clean energy. She said that the air is a huge issue that needs attention.

“I was horrified,” Ms. Floren said. “Honestly, when I first came to Hartford 12 years ago, I thought that we had done a very good job in closing those coal-burning plants. I thought we had clean air. Well, I was wrong. We have terrible air. I’m going to switch my focus to that a little bit going forward.”

Mr. Walko, who is beginning his first term in office, stressed his own personal commitment to environmental issues, citing his experiences growing up in Greenwich and his visits to the Audubon as well as his family’s wish to spend a lot of time outdoors with their two children. He said as part of the Board of Estimate and Taxation he had been part of the administration that worked with the town’s Department of Parks and Recreation to stop using pesticides on public grounds. He said he would bring the same thoughtful and careful approach to Hartford on environmental issues.

“You have to find the balance between when you can financially cut that tie because it does cost more money to maintain our fields without pesticides and how we incorporate synthetic turf to actually help our natural turf,” Mr. Walko said. “I’m very proud of that accomplishment, and I think what gets lost in terms of this conversation is that this isn’t a stand-alone conversation. There’s a big discussion as Sen. Frantz indicated with the tragedy in Newtown, and study after study after study shows that the more you can get out there and get into nature and take a walk and breathe cleaner air than in an urban environment it’s good for your mental health and good for your overall health.”

He added, “If we set this as a priority, then other things fall into place. That doesn’t necessarily mean spending more money. It’s just listing this as a priority.”

In his remarks, Mr. Camillo backed up Mr. Walko’s remarks on parks, saying there are studies of the benefits of kids playing on green grass as opposed to asphalt. He pledged to “do the best we can with what we have” without abandoning any priorities.

Mr. Camillo, who has been highly praised for his work in environmental issues and animal advocacy, talked about an unsuccessful attempt to label genetically modified foods that he supported as part of a bipartisan caucus. Mr. Camillo noted that this was something Audubon would be looking at with a special event Friday, Feb. 22, at 6 p.m., when a documentary will be screened and a discussion held about the potential harm of genetically modified organisms (GMO). He added he was disappointed the labeling bill was defeated because there is evidence it can lead to health problems.

“We’re not trying to ban them even though 50 other countries have,” Mr. Camillo said. “We just want to label them so people know what they’re eating. It’s very simple, but it’s not that simple when you have big corporations fighting against it. We almost pulled it off last year and this is not going to go away. I think over time we will get this done.”

Sandy Breslin, director of governmental affairs for Audubon Connecticut, said that this forum came in the wake of a two-year “very serious re-examination of its priorities and how it does business” for the organization. Ms. Breslin, who moderated the forum, said Audubon wanted to be able to better use all its resources, including wildlife sanctuaries and education centers, to “do the most good for birds, habitats and people.” The forum was offered to make sure people were briefed on what environmental efforts are ongoing in Hartford and for the legislators to hear feedback.

The legislators also took the chance to praise the work of the Audubon as well as the Greenwich Land Trust and the Conservation Commission.

“The Audubon Society is the gold standard when it comes to environmental education, birds and everything to do with the environment,” Mr. Frantz said. “In my opinion, it’s one of those institutions you get to know as a kid and that’s really important. It becomes part of your consciousness going forward, and who doesn’t love the Audubon Society?”

 

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