The Fairfield Wetlands Commission appears to be a town body that has lost its way. At its March 1 hearing, the tension between staff and commission members was palpable.

Staff was not the only party that was slighted. When it came time for public comment on the Thorpe Street project, John Fallon, attorney for the applicant, was allowed to respond to each public comment instead of waiting until the public completed its presentation. This interrupted the flow of public comment and appeared to inhibit some members of the public from speaking.

The inappropriate deference extended to Fallon by permitting him to interrupt the public was only one example of how the commission effectively turned the proceedings over to the applicant's attorney. Fallon advanced a legal argument that he claimed narrowed the scope of the commission's decision-making authority on the application he represented. The commission made no effort to substantiate Fallon's legal view. Since the entire application turned on the scope of the commission's authority, this issue needed further examination.

In the recent Walgreen's zoning case, Fallon's legal arguments were summarily rejected by Connecticut courts at every level, so the Wetlands Commission had a duty to seek an objective analysis from town counsel rather than meekly adopting Fallon's legal views, which have not always been dispositive on regulatory issues.

Instead of critically evaluating the legal issue here, the commission rushed to judgment. The proposed Thorpe Street condo project may create serious environmental hazards for the adjacent wetlands. Consideration of these possible hazards was curtailed last night by the capitulation of the commission.

When commission staff begged for more information from the applicant's experts and reported that two other town bodies -- engineering and sewer -- had not yet submitted final reports, the commission continued its headlong rush to judgment. The commission refused to wait or request more data and instead quickly adopted Fallon's "hearsay" assurance that more reports were not needed. It certainly appeared that the commission abjectly succumbed to whatever view Fallon deigned to offer. This was a scenario eerily reminiscent of one that occurred when Kevin Gumper, who now sits on the Wetlands Commission, chaired the Town Plan and Zoning Commission. He adopted the view of the third train station developer and Ken Flatto that no public hearing was needed when the developer informed the board that it intended to make extraordinary changes to the project. Thankfully, plan and zoning, now that Gumper no longer chairs it, has decided that the public deserves to be heard on this issue.

Protection of the town's wetlands is of critical importance. After all the issues that have surfaced with the third train station, the public has the right to expect the Wetlands Commission to proceed thoroughly and cautiously. It appears that internal squabbling, a lack of interest in public comment, inexplicable deference to the views of an applicant's attorney, and a rush to judgment have deflected the Wetlands Commission from its mission.

Jan R. Reber