You’ve heard the question debated, “If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?”
Well, you may have noticed lots of trees falling in Wilton lately, many taken down by homeowners. But without obtaining the proper permits from the Town of Wilton, the sound homeowners hear might just be the thump of a cease-and-desist order landing on their doorstep or the cha-ching of a hefty fine.
The main issue with clearing trees, even a single tree, is its potential impact on wetlands and watercourses, which are prevalent throughout the town.
A quick look at the Inland Wetlands Commission’s recent public hearings shows a number of cease-and-desist orders and violations for unpermitted tree removal, with citations issued by the Environmental Affairs Department across the town.
So how do residents know what the town does and doesn’t allow them to do on their own property? The answers may not be obvious to homeowners looking for information on the town website.
If homeowners know to look under the Inland Wetland and Watercourse Regulations when they are considering tree work, they would see the following passages:
6.1 “No person shall conduct or maintain a regulated activity without first obtaining a permit for such activity from the Inland Wetlands Commission of the Town of Wilton.” [That includes] 2.1.z. “…removal or deposition of material, or any obstruction, construction, alteration or pollution of such wetlands or watercourses…”
… “Furthermore,” [regulated activities include] “any clearing, grubbing [digging out and uprooting of stumps, roots, and other below-ground vegetative material], filling, grading, paving, excavating, construction, depositing or removal of material and discharging of stormwater on the land within 100 feet of a wetland or within 100 feet of a watercourse.”
In simple terms, the wetlands regulations pertain not only to tree-clearing, but to the addition of structures such as playsets or even a generator pad or air conditioning condenser if they are within 100 feet of a wetland or watercourse.
At least anecdotally, that seems to be news to many homeowners.
A Cautionary Case in Point
The case of one such homeowner — who is relatively new to Wilton, having purchased his property in December 2020 — illustrates the negative consequences of unpermitted work. (All of the details of this particular case can be found on the town website. GMW attempted to reach the homeowner but was unsuccessful before publication.)
In May 2021, as the homeowner was in the process of clearing trees and making other changes to the front yard and driveway areas, the Town issued a cease-and-desist order.
The homeowner also received a citation with a fine of $2,000 for failure to obtain a permit for site work within a regulated area in violation of Section 6.3 of the Inland Wetland and Watercourse Regulations.
“I was completely unaware that any permits were needed at this point,” the homeowner wrote to the commission upon receiving the citation.
He said he was “loosely aware” of wetlands on the property, but believed his only responsibility was to leave the wetland area itself undisturbed.
The homeowner explained to the commission that his primary interest was to improve the yard as a safe play space for his young family. He wrote,
“My goal was to focus on dead and dying trees; years and years of leaf deposits hiding trash, glass and other debris from the road; hidden stumps, etc.”
An Ounce of Prevention…
Permit fees range from $150 to $450 to $1,200 depending on whether the application is judged to be for minor, intermediate or significant regulated activities.
In contrast, as the homeowner learned, the $2,000 fine was just the beginning of the effort and cost he would have to incur for not first seeking a permit and to resolve the issue.
In order to respond to the Town and meet the Town’s expectations for “corrective action,” the homeowner had to hire an environmental consultant and an attorney.
The fees to file a corrective action application ($300-$2,400) are double the regular fees.
The homeowner’s corrective action plan was on the agenda at last night’s Sept. 23 Inland Wetlands Commission meeting. The application required, among other things:
- A site plan showing existing and proposed features
- Sketch plans depicting alternatives considered
- A list of names and addresses of adjoining property owners
- A narrative describing in detail the proposed activity, impacts and proposed mitigation measures
- A soil report prepared by a certified soil scientist
- A wetlands map prepared by a registered land surveyor
Though far from ideal circumstances, the commission judged the proposed corrective action to be reasonable, even without a plan to re-plant trees in much of the cleared area. As Wilton Environmental Affairs Director Mike Conklin noted, most of the property is heavily wooded (or wetlands) and it was “not unreasonable” for the homeowner to leave the front yard cleared, especially since much of it is outside the regulated area.
Not An Isolated Case
In a similar ongoing case, the resident of a property (a relative of the owner) was served with a cease-and-desist order from the Town when Town staff learned of unauthorized clearing of trees on the site.
In a letter to the town in response to the order, the resident explained, “There was significant prior storm damage, dead rot from the prior 30+ years of neglect, lying on the ground or partially fallen and dangerous.”
The resident appeared at the Sept. 23 Inland Wetlands Commission meeting.
“I want to apologize for causing any trouble. Obviously I didn’t understand or know,” he told the commission. “I wish we could have avoided all this.”
In fact, the wetlands in question are not even on the resident’s property, but on a neighboring property. However, the 100-foot regulated area extends onto the resident’s property where he was removing trees. Exacerbating the issues, the contractor he hired sprayed wood chips directly on both his and the neighbor’s property, directly adjacent to the wetlands.
The commission agreed to modify the cease-and-desist order to allow the resident to remove the problematic wood chips from his and the neighbor’s property. The resident will be required to submit a corrective action plan for the work, and the town will monitor the cleanup.
GMW reached out to First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice for comment.
“I would encourage residents with water on their property, even if it is seasonal, to speak with Environmental Affairs in the planning stages of any proposed work,” she cautioned.
She also offered a bit of advice: “Hire reputable, licensed landscapers or arborists as they know the regulations.”
She also pointed out that the Board of Selectmen had recently reduced or eliminated some Inland Wetland fees in an effort to encourage residents to follow the proper permitting process.
The town should educate new homeowners. Ridiculous. They respond after the damage is done
On Aug 9, 2021, at 12:27 PM, Jonathan Ottens wrote:
To wetlands enforcement, Mike and Lynne,
, a new residence, has a crew working in the wetlands across from my property.
Do I have to go over there or will you go over there and inspect this!!! Your office did nothing in May or otherwise I wouldn’t be contacting you. Pat Sesto would be over there to enforce and inspect any wetlands infringement.
Is this not your job?
Please appraise me of the status and situation before damage is done to the wetlands.
Begin forwarded message:
From: Jonathan Ottens
Date: May 3, 2021 at 5:23:30 PM EDT
This address is again cutting down trees after 5pm
If they break wetlands regulations it will totally be on your office for not educating them
On Apr 12, 2021, at 10:06 AM, Conklin, Mike wrote:
Mr. Ottens – My associate did drive by the property immediately after I received your complaint. We were not able to see any unauthorized work being performed from the roadway.
Director of Environmental Affairs
Town of Wilton
238 Danbury Road
Wilton, CT 06897
Phone (203) 563-0182
Fax (203) 563-0284
From: Jonathan Ottens
Sent: Friday, April 2, 2021 2:49 PM
To: Conklin, Mike
Subject: Re: Hi If u go to 100 Wild Duck please keep my name confidential Re: Hi. Happy holidays. Earth moving equipment started after 515pm. Close to wetlands
Very very concerned theystart cutting trees down in wetlands Across from my property
They are cutting trees down today in the area I asked u to check out Which is 100’ of the wetlands.
Did u go there?
On Apr 1, 2021, at 9:51 AM, Conklin, Mike wrote:
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