By Hiroko Sato
GROTON -- Groton Electric Light Department had fallen behind schedule for the construction of its new downtown headquarters and garage even before it recently began looking for a contractor.
That's because it took the agency more than two years to obtain permits needed for the project. The Groton Electric Light Commission had to attend as many as 14 meetings and site-walks with the Conservation Commission alone, according to the town's review on the permitting process. The commission's directives to GELD were also confusing as not all meetings were attended by the same members, according to the report.
In addition, some commissioners clearly had a "personal agenda" against GELD's project on Station Avenue, the focal point of the much-anticipated downtown makeover plan, and asked irrelevant questions that went beyond their authority, according to the report.
Some selectmen say the report also show the town's need to revise its wetland bylaws to provide clearer guidance for the Conservation Commission for granting waivers.
Certain projects should be allowed within a wetland buffer zone, given what they do for the greater good of the community, Selectman Joshua Degen said.
"We all have to be reasonable about it," Selectman Anna Eliot said about waivers, which the Conservation Commission refused to grant for GELD, bringing the project to a halt.
Selectmen and the Conservation Commission are expected to sit down together on Aug. 12 to discuss a range of problems that may have prolonged the GELD permitting process. At a selectmen's meeting June 3, the Groton Electric Light Commission announced it will slash its $30,000 annual payment in half in lieu of taxes in protest of the lengthy permitting process for its construction project. Commission Chairman Kevin Lindemer has said the permit fees GELD paid totaled $151,000 by the time the project received approval on Dec. 13.
Selectmen argued GELD ratepayers and the taxpayers are residents and GELD's payment reduction would not help them in any way. Town Manager Mark Haddad and GELD Manager Kevin Kelly have since worked with town Land Use Director Michelle Collette and Conservation Administrator Barbara Ganem to review what caused the prolonged process and recently released a postmortem report, delineating what had gone wrong.
The report highlighted multiple causes for the repeated delays, including GELD's assumption that the Conservation Commission would deem the 50-foot wetland buffer zone as "pre-disturbed" and would allow minimal construction there. The problems with the delineation of the wetland and the town's exploration of the idea to construct the new Center Fire Station on the GELD site on Station Avenue also contributed to the delays, the report says.
The engineer GELD hired for the project did not effectively perform the job, according to the report, though Kelly disagrees with the finding.
Nonetheless, receiving Conservation Commission approval was the "major obstacle" for the project, the report concludes.
Kelly said Monday some commissioners had a bias against the project. In a meeting on Aug. 30, 2011, which Commissioner Bruce Easom and then-Commissioner Bill Neacy did not attend, GELD walked away, believing the agency and the commission had a "good working relationship," Kelly said Monday.
In the following meeting with Easom and Neacy in attendance, "the dynamics changed substantially," Kelly said.
Easom and Neacy could not be reached for comment. Commissioner Craig Auman declined to comment, saying that he has not read the report. Commissioner Chairman Peter Morrison and member Marshall Giguere, who also served on the board during the permitting process, could not be reached for comment. Commissioner Nadia Madden has also served on the board, but could not be reached.
The report says, without providing names, that some commissioners asked irrelevant questions, such as why the new facility was necessary, how the project could impact global warming, and whether GELD trucks would be visible from Station Avenue.
"Certain members of the Conservation Commission overstepped their authority as commissioners," Degen said.
Eliot said the accounts provided in the postmortem report match her recollection from Conservation Commission meetings. Selectman Peter Cunningham also called the postmortem report a "pretty balanced and fair analysis."
Cunningham said selectmen and all those involved in the permitting process can learn from the review. Selectmen will make recommendations to improve the process after the Aug. 12 meeting with the Conservation Commission, he said. Degen and Eliot also hope the report will help smooth out the process for future permit applicants while stressing that GELD and the town boards both shared blame.
Degen and Eliot want the Conservation Commission to consider granting waivers from wetland bylaws more often and believe bylaws should be revised for that.
The town formed the Wetland Bylaw Review Committee sometime ago to look into such issues.
Changes proposed so far by the committee seem to make permitting process even more complicated than they already are, Eliot said. The town can allow some wetland development in exchange of having wetland in "disrepair" restored, she said.
"Don't-touch-and-leave-it-alone type of policy is not furthering the cause of protecting our wetland," Eliot said.