GROTON -- A post mortem on the review process conducted by the town manager and other municipal officials found that no one was "completely blameless" in the Groton Electric Light Department's special permit application to build a new headquarters complex on Station Avenue.
"What is clear from this review is that the approval process before the Planning Board, Earth Removal Stormwater Management Committee, and Design Review Committee went smoothly and did not cause any additional costs that are not faced by all applicants before town boards," according to the post mortem. "The major obstacle to this project's approval was the issuance of an order of conditions from the Conservation Commission.
"A lack of communication between the applicant and the Conservation Commission caused problems for this project from the onset," the document concluded. "Lack of flexibility when considering 'the public good' and 'adverse impacts' on a predisturbed wetlands buffer also caused substantial challenges."
The document designates "personal agendas" opposing construction of the complex on Station Avenue as further reason for the Conservation Commission logjam.
"The town should take this process as a learning experience and work to improve the way it goes about permitting various projects from routine to difficult," stated the post mortem.
Suggested improvements in reviewing projects included improved communications with applicants about the cost of peer reviews and expectations, the appointment of a Wetlands Bylaw Review Committee, more flexibility by boards in reviewing applications, and the implementation of "coordinating permitting" among land-use boards.
The need for a post mortem came about after a long and often frustrating review process by GELD for a new office/garage complex it plans to build on land along Station Avenue.
Building designs were completed last year and submitted for review by the town's land-use boards before being rejected by the Conservation Commission due to expected encroachment into nearby wetlands. With the intercession of selectmen, GELD was allowed to alter its plans to satisfy the commission's concerns and to apply for a special permit with the Planning Board.
After a contentious meeting with selectmen in June, Town Manager Mark Haddad, with GELD manager Kevin Kelly and assisted by Town Planner Michelle Collette and Conservation administrator Barbara Ganem, decided to conduct a thorough post mortem to find out what went wrong and what could be changed.
In a letter to Town Manager Mark Haddad dated June 12, GELD attorney Robert Collins addressed some of the concerns raised by the review process undergone by the department.
"I have no doubt that members of the Conservation Commission sincerely felt that they were acting appropriately within the confines of (the law)" but "feel...that some members had difficulty seeing the overall environmental benefit which would result from replacing the existing facility," wrote Collins.
In particular, Collins cited a portion of GELD's Station Avenue land that had been disturbed in the past, that was not pristine open land by any means that would have been endangered by the project. Such land, and the watershed within which it rested, would only have been improved if the department's project proceeded.
"...the local bylaw needs to provide more flexibility in dealing with situations where the property is degraded , and the commission needs to be willing to utilize that flexibility when it is warranted," continued Collins. "The Conservation Commission needs to recognize that it does not operate in a vacuum, and that the public benefit it provides is not exclusive nor preeminent; there are instances where a compromise is the best solution.
"...Unfortunately, this was one of those circumstances where the public benefit provided by two public entities clashed," concluded Collins while also predicting that if nothing changed, the conditions over which the ConsCom objected would doom any future effort by the town to develop Station Avenue.
In his letter, Collins also took issue with the post mortem's finding that pursuing the project through an expedited permitting process would have saved time, money, and trouble; a position he reiterated at a meeting with the Electric Light Commission held Aug. 8
"There is no question in my mind that if anything, the process would have been worse and more expensive," wrote Collins.
"I generally feel that when there is a controversial filing, it is best strategically, to tackle approvals one at a time, with the most problematic first," wrote Collins. "One thus develops a 'tail wind' which helps to push the project along. Using an expedited process would have...made things worse in creating a firestorm of opposition which I believe would have been difficult to overcome."
Electric Light Commissioners expect to meet with selectmen Aug. 12 to further discuss further the conclusions.