BOS Finds Ways to Reduce Town Fees for Wilton Residents (and Maybe Even Some Eversource Bills)

The Board of Selectmen met Monday evening, May 3. Among other agenda items, the selectmen discussed ways to reduce fees charged to residents by town departments. They also gained some momentum in exploring a potential new solar energy program that First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice believes would have a number of attractive benefits, namely some savings on Eversource bills for some Wilton residents and businesses.

Reducing Burdensome Fees

During this year’s budget planning process, the fees charged by various town departments to residents and homeowners came into sharp view. During the pandemic, and as home improvement projects took off over the past year, the town actually saw a significant increase in revenue from those fees.

The BOS agreed it would review the various fees in the hopes of finding ways to offer some relief to residents.

In a memo to board members in advance of Monday’s meeting, Vanderslice gave further context on the fees. She wrote, “Following the 2007 recession, the Board of Selectmen had concerns about taxpayers’ tolerance for increases in the mill rate. The Board increased fees charged by departments as a supplemental means of funding the cost of department operations. I recommend we discuss that continued applicability.”

She also suggested undertaking a review to benchmark Wilton’s fees in comparison to other towns.

That type of benchmarking was recently done by the town’s Environmental Affairs Department. In a March 9 memo to the BOS, Environmental Affairs Director Mike Conklin shared his analysis of fees charged by similar departments in nearby towns.

While many of Wilton’s environmental fees compared favorably with other towns, Conklin found one glaring exception: the fees pertaining to inland wetlands disturbed land activity.

Specifically, Conklin found the “Additional Fees for Subdivisions, Other Residential Developments, Commercial Development & Significant Regulated Activity” charged by Wilton have resulted in “unusually high permit fees,” often in the thousands of dollars (and in some cases, tens of thousands).

Conklin recommended eliminating those additional fees. The selectmen voted unanimously to approve a motion that would “repeal, effective June 1 [2021], the Additional Fees for Regulated Activity Applications and for Corrective Action Permits” as outlined in the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Regulations Fee Schedule. (Other fees would remain as outlined on the fee schedule.)

But to illustrate the burden of fees from multiple departments on Wilton residents, Vanderslice used an example of someone installing a home generator within a regulated area (100 feet of a wetland or watercourse) and the fees that would typically apply:

  • Inland Wetlands minor activity fee: $150
  • State of CT IW fee: $60
  • Health Department review fee: $50
  • Zoning fee: $25
  • Building Department fee: $40 to $102

The selectmen agreed the layers of fees were problematic and could create a disincentive for homeowners to obtain the proper permits; as selectman Ross Tartell said, a more “streamlined” fee structure would be desirable.

Vanderslice indicated she would come back to the board after more review on fees across other departments.

Shared Clean Energy Facilities Program

The state of Connecticut enacted the Shared Clean Energy Facilities (SCEF) Program in 2018 to procure new or incremental renewable energy generation projects over the next six years.

In the legislation signed into law by Gov. Lamont, the state directed Eversource and United Illuminating “to launch a program to promote, fund and expand the installation of new community renewable generation projects”.

According to Eversource, “This SCEF program creates a market-driven bidding process for projects to compete to obtain a 20-year revenue stream from the sale of RECs [renewable energy certificates, or credits] and energy to the electric utilities.”

Vanderslice told the board she would like to investigate a “very preliminary” idea for a SCEF community solar project in Wilton.

She informed the board members in advance of Monday evening’s meeting about the Eversource SCEF program which is currently accepting applications (due in June). In a memo to board members, Vanderslice explained that the program is similar to the virtual net metering (VNM) program that the town already participates in, but noted that it would significantly expand eligibility to some residents and small businesses to receive credits on their electric bill.

She also shared a slide presentation further explaining the program for Year 1 bidders.

Vanderslice said that Cela Sinay, the managing partner of Citrine Power, a Westport-based developer of renewable power plants, had approached the town about the possibility of developing a project on the large parcel of land (over 74 acres) where the Wilton Transfer Station is located. Eversource will be giving priority to projects constructed on landfill areas, such as the property Wilton owns.

Of note, Wilton’s role in the project would essentially be as the landowner. The developer (Citrine) would be making the formal application. Vanderslice indicated she would approach town counsel to draft the documents Wilton would need in order to lease the town-owned property to Citrine Power.

With applications due in June, time is of the essence. Vanderslice indicated she would “move quickly to determine feasibility [and] if feasible, would return to the [BOS] with a proposal.”

Chris Burney, Wilton’s Department of Public Works and Facilities director, was also present at Monday’s BOS meeting to help answer the selectmen’s questions about the SCEF program.

Burney called the potential project “a really good opportunity” and felt that taking the preliminary steps needed for the application represented “no cost on our behalf, no risk on our behalf, only the potential for reward.”

Vanderslice went even further, to say it was a “perfect opportunity,” because “that landfill is land for no other purpose or value” that Wilton can “convert into something that would… benefit qualifying residents and small businesses”.

Vanderslice summarized what she thought the key benefits of the program would be for Wilton:

  1. A new, renewable energy source
  2. Rental income for Wilton
  3. Many Wilton residents and small businesses could receive credits on their Eversource bills (though she noted the town itself would not be eligible for those credits due to credits already received for its current solar programs)

Income would be the key qualifier for individuals receiving credits. Vanderslice expected that residents who qualified for the town’s many affordable housing units or who meet certain income requirements, as well as many small businesses, would ultimately receive the credits, which could amount to significant savings.

When asked by selectwoman Lori Bufano about the timeframe for the project, Vanderslice said she believed it would be “pretty quick” and suggested it could be operational “within a year, if not less.”

Other Business

In part responding to a letter from a resident frustrated with what he viewed as new residents violating some environmental regulations, Vanderslice reported that the town will be developing a “Guide to Living in Wilton,” largely aimed at new residents who, in many cases, do not appear to have basic information important for daily life here. She recounted examples of new residents putting out trash bins expecting pickup, and being unaware that septic tanks require regular service, as examples.

The need for such a guide is also related to the recent rise in inland wetland violations. The Environmental Affairs Department recently issued a press release reminding residents that “any site work within 100 feet of a wetland or watercourse requires a wetland permit. Homeowners most frequently request permits for projects like installing a generator or air conditioner unit, putting up a shed or playground set, clearing a forested area to increase lawn space and excavation or site grading work.”

In other business, the board unanimously approved two new appointments, including Penelope Koechl to the Inland Wetlands Commission, and Jeffrey Miller to the Police Commission.

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