Selectmen to vote on closing wetlands loophole

The Board of Selectmen is poised to close a loophole that the town’s Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency (IWWA) said has made it difficult to charge fines.

Currently when the agency sees a violation of town land use rules when it comes to constructing on wetlands, there is a grace period of one day before the fine can be charged. Because of that, the violator would essentially have to be caught breaking the rule a second time after a stop work order is posted before the fine is assessed, and IWWA officials say that has proved to be a hindrance to their work. Now the selectmen can eliminate that and are expected to do so at their meeting today at 10 a.m. at Town Hall.

The selectmen first heard about this issue at their Nov. 1 meeting and are expected to take action today so the change can be heard by the Representative Town Meeting for final approval at its Dec. 10 meeting. The call for that meeting closes Friday, Nov. 16, at noon, so if the selectmen do not act the change will be deferred until January.

 

John Conte, vice chairman of the IWWA, appeared at the Nov. 1 meeting with Michael Chambers, the town’s director of the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Department, and Robert Clausi, senior wetlands analyst for the town. Mr. Conte explained that in an effort to not invest the IWWA with overreaching powers to fine, the unintended consequence was that it left the agency without enough power.

“We want to improve the effectiveness of an ordinance that has been in effect now for several years,” Mr. Conte said. “Under this ordinance an individual contractor or homeowner who commits a violation in wetlands can be fined. The language we are proposing is really an effort to dial it back to the original language that was proposed. This ordinance was enacted, rightly so, with a lot of care and caution and we didn’t want it to become overreaching. But I think in that effort what has happened is that we opened up this loophole and it’s been exploited. We want to make sure it isn’t used in a way to circumvent regulations and to allow individuals to take advantage of what was intended as a cautionary clause.”

He said the only way the town could issue the fine would be if someone “completely ignores” the stop work order, which Mr. Conte said “takes away the effectiveness of it.” He said a contractor working in Greenwich who knows the regulation and about this loophole would be able to commit a violation one day, get a stop work order and be working down the street later in the week committing the same violation again because he knows if he gets caught and stops he can’t be fined. Mr. Conte termed this “gaming the system a bit” and speculated that contractors can mislead homeowners about this by saying it won’t be an issue.

Mr. Conte compared it to a police officer not being able to give out a ticket for speeding unless the driver sped away from the scene after being warned. Under the regulations, the town can fine $1,000 per violation per day. Since this regulation went into effect in 2007, John Wetmore, the town’s special counsel on land use issues, said, the fine has been charged only twice. He advised the board that the language of the ordinance currently “poses an impediment.”

“We want to be able to issue the fine on the first day when the violation is committed without the need to wait for them to continue,” Mr. Conte said. “Cases where they are told to stop and they don’t stop are extremely rare. The language has been in place for a number of years and we really haven’t been able to use it because of this clause.”

Mr. Conte said events like Hurricane Sandy not only knock trees down all over town but leave Greenwich “besieged” by “lots and lots of people with chain saws, contractors and others who come into town and start cutting.” He said that was necessary and would be allowed, but there was sometimes so much of a reaction to big storms like Sandy that for months after people were still cutting down trees to prevent any possible concern about falling, which could be a violation of town wetlands ordinances if done improperly.

“It’s very timely that we address this,” Mr. Conte said. “We’re going to be seeing a lot more contractor activity from people who aren’t necessarily aware of our regulations, and we want to make it abundantly clear that there are regulations to follow.”

Mr. Wetmore said the IWWA believes there are “rogue” contractors who go out and do the work without adhering to town regulations knowing that because of the grace period they will not be left with the fine. He said an example of this would be clear-cutting trees near a wetland. Mr. Conte added that he believed the current language offered a bit of an “incentive for contractors to see what they can get away with,” knowing that if there are any later costs for restoration of wetlands, which is something the IWWA can determine, the homeowner would be left with those costs.

“We want to be able to go out there and hit them hard with an enforcement that means something,” Mr. Wetmore said.

Selectman Drew Marzullo asked if people were generally aware these regulations existed, and Mr. Conte said if contractors or homeowners were going to do this work, it was their responsibility to know what ordinances are on the books in Greenwich. He said that “not knowing is no excuse for being able to commit a violation.” He added that he hoped by making sure contractors know about the law it would educate homeowners so that the regulations would be followed.

 

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