Supreme Court upholds challenge to Fairfield Metro wetlands officer
Updated 12:05 pm, Tuesday, August 7, 2012
The state's Supreme Court on Friday upheld a lower ruling ordering Gary Weddle's removal from environmental oversight of the Fairfield Metro project, where he served as a wetlands compliance officer during construction of the town's now-complete third railroad station, reporting directly to the Conservation Commission.
Weddle, a former commission member himself, was appointed by the panel in March 2008 after Conservation Director Thomas Steinke and his staff were removed from their traditional role overseeing compliance with environmental regulations by then-First Selectman Kenneth Flatto, who said they were delaying the project with unreasonable demands.
But the ruling in favor of plaintiff group, calling itself Concerned Citizens, may be a moot point.
The train station and commuter parking lot built off lower Black Rock Turnpike on a former factory site were opened last December. Economic Development Director Mark Barnhart said Friday, "That work's been done for a while."
Weddle had appealed the Superior Court ruling regarding his appointment, which was contested by a group of eight local residents.
With completion of the rail depot, it was not clear whether Weddle would have continued in the wetlands-compliance role for future projects planned on the rest of the Fairfield Metro property by a private developer, Blackrock Realty, or whether that authority would have reverted to Steinke and his staff.
In light of last week's court ruling, however, it seems certain the town staff would resume environmental oversight of any future development on the site, although Town Attorney Stanton Lesser was not available to comment. Lesser, however, may face a potential conflict on the issue since he was chairman of the Conservation Commission when it voted to appoint Weddle as wetlands-compliance officer in place of the town staff.
"By ordering Weddle to report directly to the commission, the commission effectively usurped the conservation director's role as the direct supervisor of the wetlands compliance officer," the Supreme Court ruling states, and that did not comply with town charter procedures. "Specifically, the commission was without power to exempt Weddle from the requirement that individuals appointed under (the charter) are entitled to enforce relevant laws, ordinances and regulations subject to the general supervision of the conservation director. As such, Weddle has failed to satisfy his burden of proving lawful title to the wetlands compliance officer position."
In a release, Concerned Citizens expressed satisfaction with the Supreme Court ruling. "It is now incumbent on the commission to obey the trial court judgment and remove Gary Weddle and reinstate the Conservation Department's existing compliance officer who is under the supervision of the conservation director."
The group also said the compliance officer and director need to resume normal oversight and enforcement on the "troubled project," including inspecting it to determine if there are any existing violations of the permit and to see if the work has been properly performed. It also said the department should resume oversight of any future work by the private developer at the site.
Meanwhile, Blackrock Realty, the developer of the private portion of the Fairfield Metro project, is seeking permission from the town to change a building planned on its share of the site -- initially envisioned as a retail pavilion -- to a 285-unit apartment building.
The Inland Wetlands Agency will hold a public hearing at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 16 in Sullivan-Independence Hall to determine if construction of an apartment building is consistent with the existing wetlands permit, or whether either a permit modification or a new permit is required. The hearing will be held in conjunction with a hearing by the Conservation Commission on a proposal from Blackrock Realty to temporarily close a portion of the open space area at the Fairfield Metro site for 12 months and/or use a portion of the easement area for construction and staging for the apartment building.
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