Concerns Mount Over Proposal to Expand ‘Upland Review Area’

As part of an effort to curb clear cutting of wooded areas near water and wetlands, Salisbury officials have proposed new setbacks that are meeting with resistance from property owners. The property owners’ chief concern is that enlarging the area of regulated activity would do little to stop the clear-cutting problem described by town officials while saddling those who live on the lakes with a potentially costly and time-consuming approval process for basic yard maintenance, such as removing dead wood or repaving a road.

To press this and other concerns, a group has organized under the name Salisbury Lakes Homeowners. This group has members from the Lakeville Lake area as well as the Twin Lakes area and seeks to stop the proposal from moving forward in order to allow time for a thorough and inclusive community discussion. In a letter to First Selectman Curtis Rand and the Salisbury Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission, the homeowners formally ask that the town stand down for now and appoint an advisory group representing the wider community, with special care to include the voices of those who would be directly affected.

Among the homeowner group’s concerns is that the proposed expansion of the regulated activity area:

–Was developed with zero input from Twin Lakes homeowners. 
–Was brought to the public’s attention only on March 1 and appears to be on a fast track to approval.
–Lacks sufficient evidence for why an enlarged area of review is needed around specific lakes or how such an expansion of authority would address the town’s primary concern.
–Might damage property values and in so doing reduce property tax payments to the town.
–Might have unintended consequences such as inviting intrusion from third parties in routine applications that do not call for public input and blur the boundaries of regulated space in a way that invites government overreach.

The proposal also fails to make clear what activities would and would not require approval, leaving homeowners in the untenable position of applying for permission to perform mundane tasks, or risk running afoul of the law. 

The Twin Lakes Association has a keen interest in any proposal that would expand the town’s upland review authority. While some TLA members have expressed concern about clear cutting in general, far more have told the board they oppose any expansion of the regulated area along the shoreline. The town already has broad regulatory authority over this space through a “lake overlay zone” (up to 300 feet from shore) that falls under the purview of the Planning and Zoning Commission, which typically engages the Wetlands Commission before ruling on building plans in this zone. Town officials have confirmed that recent clear cutting around the lakes, including a much-discussed building site near the old Taconic post office, would have been permitted even under the proposed expanded setbacks.

The TLA board’s position is that any movement on the proposal should be stopped until there has been a thorough public airing of the issues.

Wiping out large sections of woods has been a town concern for many years. The issue has taken on more urgency in the past two years, which brought increased activity to the lakes and to the broader region and fueled a robust real estate market and surge in home building and renovation.

First Selectman Curtis Rand says the town has struggled with how to address the clear-cutting problem. State and town officials have little ability to prohibit taking down trees outside of a wetlands area. This should be of some concern to everyone, Rand says. As trees come down you lose elements of the night sky. Eagles that need tall trees on the shoreline to fish and nest might move on. Clearing and stumping may lead to soil erosion that is costly to dredge and changes the nature of the lakes, Rand says.

The enlarged regulated activity zone would give the Wetlands Commission review authority on land within 200 feet of a lake or watercourse and within 100 feet of any wetland, which is defined not as “wet land” but by soil composition as determined by a soil scientist. These zones would be up from the current 75 feet and, critically, they far exceed the minimum requirements set by the state.

Equally critical is that the vast majority of homes on Twin Lakes fall within 200 feet of the shoreline and that many of these properties are less than 200 feet deep. The new regulated area would extend beyond the front door to and beyond the road in many cases. This would put homeowners’ entire property in the review area and potentially render them unable to repair any hardscaping or replace trees and bushes around the house without permission.

The Wetlands Commission read the homeowner group’s letter aloud at its meeting on March 15 and Abby Conroy, the town’s Land Use Administrator, fielded questions. She explained that most of what is in the new proposal is required by the state. But she stated clearly that the expansion of the upland review area is a town decision. She defended it by noting that some other towns have gone this route. Homeowners called that inadequate justification.

The Wetlands Commission postponed to April 26 a “workshop” on the proposal that had been scheduled for March 29. Conroy said she would prepare a new document spelling out state-mandated changes as opposed to the proposal’s discretionary provisions, which include the larger setback and certain definitions for terms like “clearing” and “grubbing.” This may alleviate some homeowners’ concerns but leaves open to question why the town needs a deeper setback and how that will help solve the bigger clear-cutting problem.

The TLA board will continue to monitor the Wetlands Commission proposal and intends to submit questions to the commission before the April 26 workshop. In coming weeks, the Salisbury Lakes Homeowners, which consists of a number of TLA board members and others, expects to further engage with the town and reach out to the hundreds of property owners on the lakes if a greater show of concern is warranted.

We suggest TLA members express their views to town officials and we invite you to send questions for the Wetlands Commission to president@twinlakesorg.orgTo learn more about the issue: The town website has a redline of new rules, an information sheet and slides from the first workshop. The Zoom invite for the April 26 meeting will be posted here later. The homeowner’s group is posting relevant publicly available documents, including its letter to the Wetlands Commission.

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