It was deja vu all over again Thursday when the Fairfield Metro project rolled back before the Inland Wetlands Commission for a public hearing on changes to the project encompassing both the town's third railroad station and plans for a private, multi-faceted development.
Critics continued to hammer the commission over the role of Conservation Director Thomas Steinke, who was removed from his traditional role providing environmental oversight for the project, and also took the panel members to task over their demeanor during the hearing.
Before the hearing began, the commission voted to place consultants on the Fairfield Metro project -- Gary Weddle and Redniss & Mead, a consulting firm -- under the "general supervision" of Steinke, in compliance with a state recent Supreme Court ruling. That decision upheld a challenge to the removal of Steinke and his staff from their usual role during the administration of then-First Selectman Kenneth Flatto, who contended they were unnecessarily hindering the project.
Kathryn Braun, a member of the RTM, thanked the commission for following through on the court order, but said it cannot vote on the changes proposed by the private developer, Blackrock Realty, because Steinke has yet to make a recommendation.
"This commission can't rely on Redniss & Meade, Bill Kenny or Gary Weddle in drawing any conclusion," she said. "To do so would violate the local court and Supreme Court" because they have not been supervised by Steinke. "You should not rely on these reports," Braun said.
Blackrock Realty wants to change an already-approved building proposed for the property from a retail pavilion to a structure with 197 apartment units. The Thursday night hearing was held to decide whether that change is in keeping with the original permit or whether a new or modified application must be sought. The board made no decision Thursday.
George Bisacca, the lawyer who represented a group called Concerned Citizens, who won the court case challenging the appointment of Weddle as wetlands compliance officer, asked the commission who would be the compliance officer on the project.
When he was told it would Weddle, Bisacca responded that the court had ordered Weddle removed from that role.
"No, the court ordered him under the supervision of the conservation director," responded Kevin Gumpper, the conservation chairman. He added the panel did not plan to debate the matter that evening.
That prompted shouts from the audience of, "Let him speak!" and a warning from Gumpper that he would clear the room if necessary to maintain order.
"This meeting is about the three items on the agenda," he said. "We're not talking about who the wetlands compliance officer is."
Another RTM member, Carol Pontrelli, R-9, said while the square footage of the proposed apartment building might be the same as the previously proposed retail pavilion, "the footprint of a resident space is much different. I really don't see how these two footprints are comparable."
At one point during her remarks, Pontrelli made an observation on the apparent lack of engagement by commission members during the meeting, prompting an audience member to remark that panel members should look at the public speakers. When it was her turn to speak, Gaylor Meyer, another RTM member. chastised Gumpper, "Don't look away from me when I speak."
As for the change proposed by Blackrock Realty, the developer's lawyer, John Fallon, said the apartment building -- which has yet to receive Town Plan and Zoning Commission approval -- is smaller and farther away from a conservation easement area on the property. However, there would need to be temporary closure of access to all or some of the conservation area during construction of the building for safety purposes, Fallon said.
"There are no new regulated activities in any regulated areas associated with this change of use," he said.
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