Judge invalidates hiring of outside environmental monitor for Metro Center
Published 9:20 am, Thursday, July 8, 2010
Fairfield officials acted illegally when they replaced the town's conservation staff to monitor environmental issues during construction of the Metro Center project, and instead hired an outside consultant, according to a Bridgeport Superior Court judge.
In a 34-page decision handed down Tuesday, Judge Richard Arnold declared that Gary Weddle's appointment in 2008 as the wetlands compliance consultant, supplanting the town's conservation staff, to be "illegal, null and void," and ordered Weddle to be removed from the post. The judge said that, based on the town's charter and inland wetlands regulations, Weddle could not be hired for the role instead of the municipal staff charged with enforcement of the town's wetlands regulations.
Weddle, a former member of the Conservation Commission, was appointed as environmental overseer for the Metro Center, a development that includes the town's third railroad station after First Selectman Kenneth Flatto in late 2007 removed the conservation staff from its usual wetlands-compliance authority over the project. He contended the town staff had fallen behind in other work and that staff had been too inflexible in dealing with the project's private developer, Blackrock Realty.
The proposed development, a joint effort of the town, state Department of Transportation and Blackrock Realty, initially was envisioned as a multi-faceted project that, in addition to the rail depot, would include a 1,500-space rail commuter parking, a hotel, office buildings, a health club and retail space. Blackrock, however, lost the financing for its share of the project, which subsequently fell into foreclosure.
The judge's ruling came in response to a lawsuit challenging town officials' decision to boot the conservation staff from the project and appoint an outsider.
The opponents have concentrated their fire on Flatto, even though Weddle was formally appointed by the Conservation Commission, since he initiated the process when he ordered that Conservation Director Thomas Steinke and his staff have no more role overseeing environmental issues for the project.
"It was clear to us early on that Mr. Flatto's action was illegal because it failed to follow the mandate of the town charter," said George Bisacca, who represented the eight Fairfield citizens who filed the lawsuit opposing Weddle's appointment. "Mr. Flatto never had any authority to do what he did."
Flatto on Tuesday said it appeared the judge was predisposed against the town since the beginning of the litigation over the appointment, and added the town probably will appeal.
"I felt very strongly from the beginning that the judge's interpretations of the facts in the case were very errant. This was a big waste of time and continues to be a big waste of time," he said.
Flatto also emphasized the judge's ruling will have no impact on the project, where the platforms for the new railroad station have already been built and construction is proceeding on roads and commuter parking in the complex.
The only Metro Center plans to advance, however, are the railroad station and its related parking lot and roads. The future of the private commercial features of the project are uncertain. But a deal with the state and private developer this spring is expected to provide the financing to complete the railroad segment.
During a hearing before Arnold in March, Flatto said he believed the town had the authority under state law to appoint Weddle to monitor environmental issues related to the project as well as to remove Steinke and his staff from their traditional role.
Arnold was asked by the citizen group -- including Edward Bateson and Alexis Harrison, both Fairfield Representative Town Meeting members, as well as Jeanne Konecny, Philip Meiman, Pamela Ritter, Les Schaffer, Joy Shaw and Jane Talamini -- to rule that town officials overstepped his authority in replacing Steinke with Weddle.
In a statement issued Wednesday on behalf of the plaintiffs by their lawyers, they said: "It was perfectly clear from day one that the action of First Selectman Flatto in removing the town's conservation director, Thomas Steinke, from his duty of general supervision on the train station project was in direct defiance of the Town Charter and obviously illegal.
The charter clearly and unambiguously requires that any consultant or wetlands compliance officer appointed to perform the duties of the Conservation Commission or the town Inland Wetlands Agency must be subject to the general supervision of the conservation director. Given the complexity of environmental problems, this requirement is essential to protect the town's interests."
The group also was critical of what it called a "shoddy history of governmental abuse," adding the "town has been deprived of the proper supervision of environmental issues relating to the train station project. There can be no excuse for Mr. Flatto to persist in the illegal conduct described in the court's decision.
"The train station project must be completed as soon as possible, but it must be completed correctly and in compliance with town regulations," they added.
Another RTM member, Kathryn Braun, R-8, said, "I would hope the court agrees there was no authority for the first selectman to remove the director of conservation permanently from all oversight on the largest contaminated site in town."
The developer had contended that Steinke was trying to kill the project and threatened to sue the town if the project faced more roadblocks.