Some lake and town officials worry proposed changes to the shoreline management plan will weaken the health of Candlewood Lake, while FirstLight Power Resources says the revised document actually strengthens protections and better reflects what it is allowed to do.

Among the chief complaints are localities’ and lake authorities’ weakened roles in oversight, added fees for projects done around the lake and changes to requirements for some of the environmental safeguards, such as vegetative buffers.

“Our primary concern is to assure that any proposed changes to the existing SMP continue to protect the lake and meet the needs of property owners,” said Mark Howarth, Candlewood Lake Authority’s executive director. “In its current draft state, we do not feel that the proposed draft SMP accomplishes this effectively.”

The existing shoreline management plan was adopted in 2013. FirstLight, which owns and operates the Housatonic hydroelectric system, is required to update this plan every six years as part of its license through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

It covers the 200 miles or so of shoreline that make up the Housatonic hydroelectric system, which includes Candlewood Lake, Lake Lillinonah and Lake Zoar.

The plan is used to ensure the shores are being used appropriately, helps control development and ensures the hydroelectric power project is being used appropriately.

A stakeholder meeting was held earlier this week, and a public hearing is scheduled for 7 to 9 p.m. on Wednesday at the Heritage Hotel in Southbury.

“We’re interested in hearing feedback from the public,” FirstLight spokesman Len Greene said. “Hopefully we can find a positive solution to the SMP.”

Concerns about the plan

Though a bulk of the content is the same, the documents look very different side by side, which some say have made it hard to dig through and determine the actual changes.

“The proposal now under review has been so fundamentally restructured, that it is difficult to understand all the ramifications,” New Fairfield First Selectman Patricia Del Monaco wrote in the town’s comments to FirstLight.

The comments were unanimously approved by the Board of Selectmen and build upon a list of concerns CLA released to FirstLight and the public. New Fairfield focused on the lack of collaboration the draft would create between the towns and FirstLight.

“We really need a good working relationship with FirstLight to address lake issues,” said Khris Hall, a New Fairfield selectman.

More towns and lake authorities are expected to chime in as they learn more about the draft.

Greene said FirstLight will do what it can to address these concerns within reason as it develops the next draft. FirstLight has already incorporated some of CLA’s recommendations into the new version.

One change is reverting back to the six-year review cycle instead of 10 years, like originally proposed. Another is keeping the annual stakeholder meeting for another two years instead of eliminating it now.

“We’ve been trying to be as collaborative as possible,” Greene said, adding there were a series of informal meetings throughout the process.

Administrative changes

Some of the technical changes in the document have lake and town officials worried that their oversight in decisions concerning the lake is diminishing, especially since the new version removes the commitment to share data with the lake authorities and municipalities.

“Information concerning the quality and state of the lake as well as action taken by FirstLight to enforce its requirements should not be considered as ‘company information’ and should be routinely available to the public,” Del Monaco wrote. “It is difficult to understand what privacy concerns there might be to justify not sharing such information.”

Greene said the FERC no longer requires the company to share the mapping information and so the new document reflects that.

Town and lake officials also objected to the new administrative fees introduced.

Greene said the new fee structure is made up of only one-time fees and residents who don’t change their property or are doing what’s in their deeded rights won’t have to pay them. He said they were introduced because it takes “significant time and resources” to carry out the management plan and this helps cover those costs.

Another concern is that placing the fee schedule, zone details and guidelines for all activities in project area included in the appendices and not the body of the plan will allow for FirstLight to freely update them.

“There’s no oversight or opportunity for comment,” Hall said.

Environmental program changes

There are also some changes that CLA worries will weaken programs that protect the lake’s water quality and the habitat.

Among them is the change to the vegetative buffer program, which is designed to filter the stormwater runoff before it enters the lake. The draft would no longer require someone who buys a house on the lake to put a buffer in if the property is unchanged.

The CLA has also requested language that requires homeowners to use rip/raps instead of seawalls to help reduce shoreline erosion unless it’s impossible or within a homeowner’s deeded rights.

“While we are pleased with certain aspects of the new SMP, including the shortened time frame for buffer garden installation requirements, on balance, the new proposal is a step backward from the protections required to keep Candlewood the vibrant natural resource we all enjoy and depend on,” according to a CLA press release.

Greene said FirstLight changed the trigger for the buffers, not the requirement. Instead of requiring it when a property is bought, it will now go into effect when someone applies to make a change to their property, such as enlarging a dock or adding a shed. They also shortened the time frame to do this from five years to three.

He said FirstLight wasn’t really able to enforce the buffers triggered by new sales and they had heard from real estate agents that it was complicating sales.

“In our view, this would actually strengthen the installation of vegetative buffers instead of weaken it,” he said.