Liz Raisbeck, formerly Sr. Vice President at National Audubon Society, now retired to Groton, shares the story of how local citizens persuaded the Zoning Commission to strengthen drinking water protections.
It is rare for town regulatory matters to take on the trappings of soap opera, but that is what happened when Groton’s Zoning Commission (ZC) proposed a little change to the regulations governing Groton’s Water Resources Protection District.
Over a year ago, the Groton Zoning Commission took on the arduous task of reviewing the town’s regulations, which hadn’t been updated for at least two decades, with a goal of modernizing and simplifying them. They tackled the regs that cover Groton’s Water Resources Protection District (WRPD), a regulatory overlay designed to protect our reservoirs and their associated streams and wetlands. The WRPD is unique in Connecticut and has done a moderately good job of protecting our drinking water, most of which comes from surface water bodies. It is unusually healthy for a town of our size. There is evidence, however, that our water quality has been slowly degrading in recent decades due to the usual pressures of development.
As the commission slogged through a number of thorny WRPD issues in 2016 and 2017, a group of local citizens began to participate informally in the discussions. We presented to the ZC a summary of hundreds of studies covering the last 30 years showing a scientific consensus that a 100-foot non-disturbance buffer between development and the water body was the minimum size needed. We urged the Commission to prioritize protecting Groton’s drinking water reservoirs and associated streams and wetlands for the long-term as the cheaper alternative to costly water treatment. Look at what New York City did, we said. Wisely, they concluded that protecting the drinking water watershed was the cheapest solution.
At the 11th hour, a few businesses with property in the WRPD objected to our proposal, urging no change from the existing 50-foot buffer.
When the Commission changed the draft regulations to include the 100-foot buffer, members of the Groton Town Council began to sit in on the meetings. One council member arrived at a meeting one evening with an impassioned speech and a petition signed by many of the council members opposing changing the buffer to 100 feet. (Wait. Should the Town Council be strong-arming a commission? We wondered. What about separation of powers?) As the ZC finalized all the wording changes to clarify the WRPD regs, they kept their cards close to their vests. We could not tell whether they would keep the new language or drop it back to 50 feet as the pressure mounted. Apparently, neither could the Council. The week before the ZC’s scheduled vote last May, the Council met and voted to abolish the ZC.
The Zoning Commission met the following week, stayed the course despite the TC’s disturbing action, and simply voted their revised regs into being, complete with the 100-foot non-disturbance buffer.
Meanwhile, the Town Council’s required public hearing on the abolition matter did not go well for the Council. Not surprisingly, most of the other town commissions objected, including the Planning Commission, which was very concerned about having an entire commission’s worth of unfinished work transferred to it. Even town staff pointed out that the Planning Commission could become so mired in work that permits for development projects could slow to a crawl and constituents could become very unhappy. A number of local citizens echoed these concerns. To date, the Town Council is still mulling its final decision—and we citizens are keeping close watch.
We will never know if the loaded gun pointed at the ZC backfired badly or the Commission just ignored it and followed the science toward protecting Groton’s drinking water future. Probably a little of both. The important thing is that citizen advocacy and science won the day, and our children and theirs will be the big beneficiaries of clean drinking water well into the future.