Of all the layers upon layers of government that bedevil the residents of this state, none of them rankle the feathers of the rank-and-file like the Connecticut Siting Council.
Initially formed in 1971, the appointed council decides where to put lots of unpleasant things, such as hazardous waste, power plants, toxic ash from incinerators and — most famously — cell towers. Recently, however, the embattled council has been charged with the irksome task of considering applications for industrial wind turbines in Colebrook and Prospect.
Now most close observers of state government are somewhat jaded, but even longtime news junkies were shocked when CSC Chairman Daniel Caruso resigned March 24 after acknowledging that, in violation of council rules, he had discussed the Prospect application privately with an attorney representing one of the parties opposing it.
Caruso’s actions threw the windmill applications process into turmoil, emboldening one group to file a motion for a “mistrial.” And this is not the first time controversy has followed Caruso in his six years as chairman. His remarks during a 2009 cell tower hearing in Cornwall were so abrasive that the town’s attorney filed a 30-page complaint alleging that, according to The Lakeville Journal, “public comment was being hindered by Caruso’s treatment of and perceived bullying of those who tried to testify.”
Notwithstanding the ill-chosen words of the ex-chairman, I think it’s fair to ask whether the Siting Council has outlived its usefulness — or at least consider whether the process should be reformed. After all, Connecticut is the only state that regulates the siting of cell towers at the state level. How ironic that the state of Connecticut has such iron-clad authority over these matters, whereas we Nutmeggers have historically valued local control over our 169 fiefdoms (er … municipalities).
On the energy front, most states do not review small-scale wind projects either, although some of our neighbors, such as Massachusetts, are trying to change that.
To my surprise, I learned that the council’s operations are not funded directly through taxpayers but by what the CSC calls “discrete sources.” In other words, the CSC’s money comes from those hard-to-locate fees on monthly bills from your electric utility and telecommunications providers. So sometimes the CSC is, in effect, passing judgment on projects proposed by the very organizations that fund it. Most amazingly, the council reportedly approves a whopping 96 percent of the applications it reviews.
From a consumer standpoint, one telling reason to view the CSC with a healthy dose of skepticism is that you rarely hear telcom companies complain about the siting process in Connecticut. In neighboring states such as New York, it’s common for cellular phone carriers to sue towns that enact what the companies consider to be unreasonably restrictive zoning codes limiting the placement of towers. But that never happens here because towns have little say in the process and the CSC practically rubber stamps the applications anyway.
And the composition of the CSC is a classic example of dividing the spoils among the ruling class of state government. The energy and telecommunications membership, for example, is comprised of five members appointed by the governor (including the chairperson) and one each appointed by the Speaker of the House, the President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, the chairperson of the Department of Public Utility Control and the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.
If the Siting Council were disbanded by the General Assembly, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. The legislature could enact appropriate regulations on power plant siting and waste disposal that could be enforced by the newly-created Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The state could then leave it to municipal planning and zoning commissions to enforce telcom siting regulations in much the same way that local inland wetlands commissions currently enforce DEP regulations on watercourses.
I hope the General Assembly and Gov. Malloy take my advice to deep-six the CSC. Oh, and if I ever become a beat reporter again, I’ll be forever grateful not to have to sit through another dreadful Siting Council public hearing.
Terry Cowgill blogs at terrycowgill.blogspot.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He is host of Conversations with Terry Cowgill, an hour-long monthly interview program on CATV6 on Comcast’s northwest Connecticut system.