More than just the setbacks

CORNWALL — A local family’s effort to maintain their outdoor wood-burning furnace (OWF) has met with legal resistance. Their proposal to make prescribed modifications, and limit use to the heating season, was denied by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) after it was discovered it violates local zoning laws. The furnace is shut down.Donna and Ted Larson thought they were doing something good for their family and the environment when they installed the furnace in 2005 at their Jewell Street home. It provided heat, as an alternative to an oil furnace and indoor woodstove. It affordably met hot water needs for the family of five. Most importantly, it was a way to burn a renewable resource without exacerbating their daughter’s asthma.Their clapboard-sided home, built in the 1800s, is not likely to resist infiltration. Their daughter, whose asthma is provoked by a variety of causes, has not been affected.“We knew we needed to use dry wood and carefully manage the furnace to minimize emissions, and we have been very careful about that,” Donna Larson said. “We went to all our neighbors, who supported us, because of our daughter and the environment. Those people are the same ones who wrote letters of support now.”An anonymous complaint of excessive smoke was filed with the DEP this past winter. The agency has been investigating since January. While initial observations showed that excess smoke was not a problem, it was discovered the furnace wasn’t set back quite far enough from neighboring homes.Ted Larson sought help from the Board of Selectmen and his state legislators. He confirmed that he was issued a building permit by the town building official on Sept. 5, 2005. On Sept. 23, with the furnace already installed, the town received a letter advising of new legislation, enacted the previous July 1, that addresses setbacks from neighboring homes and stack heights. The selectmen and state Sen. Andrew Roraback (R-30) agreed with Larson’s assertion that his furnace should be exempt because he was given a permit before the town was notified of the statutory change. The town would not typically revoke a permit, because existing land uses made nonconforming by new law are usually exempt, or “grandfathered.”Why the permit was issuedLand Use Administrator Karen Nelson was not in office when the permitting occurred, but has researched the matter, and was able to offer a perspective. She said there are five outdoor wood-burning furnaces in Cornwall, and there has always been a jurisdictional issue.“It’s never been clear who was obligated to enforce the DEP’s regulations,” Nelson said. “The town doesn’t address them in zoning regulations, but someone has to issue a permit. Since the DEP won’t, we have been issuing permits as if they were an accessory building, so only setback requirements apply.”Larson’s appeal to the selectmen brought a complaint to the DEP by neighbor Laurie Simmons, who was taken aback by the board’s support, in light of concerns she had brought earlier to the land use office. She said she was waiting for the end of the heating season to press the issue. The Planning and Zoning Commission was apprised last December, but did not address it because it does not regulate furnaces. Simmons, and her husband, Carroll Dunham, work in their artists’ studio that sits as close as 30 feet from the furnace. Both are asthmatics, and contend that smoke, which contains fine particulate matter, gets into the studio.While the law addresses furnace setbacks from residences not served by the furnace, it was discovered that in 2008 a change of use was approved to designate the studio a residence. The proximity between the two was where the matter ended for the DEP. There is no grandfathering of nonconforming outdoor wood-burning furnaces.Nelson said one of the furnaces in town was built so close to adjoining vacant land that if a home were built on that property, the furnace would have to be shut down.The state’s point of viewAt the DEP, Robert Girard, assistant director of the Air Enforcement Program, said the Larson case was closed by the zoning issue.“There was no issue of emissions violations,” Girard said. “Visual inspections were done twice. Further testing would have been done if the zoning issue had not been insurmountable. There was no place on the property that furnace could be situated to be in compliance with either town or state regulations. “But it did appear the Larsons were managing the furnace efficiently.”Girard said it’s up to local building officials to stay on top of new legislation; and that this one was heavily debated and advertised. The law enacted in 2005 also allows for municipalities to enforce the DEP regulations on the furnaces. It makes sense, he said, because local officials are closer to the situations, and know which of their own regulations might apply. That kind of delegating also takes an increasing burden off the state agency.“Our primary job is to check large factories for compliance. We are spending more and more time investigating furnace complaints. It’s a hot button issue right now, and we are required to follow up on every complaint.”Girard said enforcement is complaint driven. They do not inspect residential outdoor wood-burning furnaces. Opposition to the technologyLaws now require catalytic converters to be installed on furnace stacks. Girard said it is “very new technology that remains in its proving stages.”Since outdoor wood-burning furnaces began cropping up across the state, the DEP’s goal has been a statewide ban, according to Girard. “We have pursued an overall ban, but it has never been supported by the Legislature,” he said. “Every legislative session we have proposed bills toward better regulation of furnaces. This year, the chairman of the environmental committee offered a bill that would ban them, except for agricultural uses. We asked for a requirement for future installations to be cleaner burning units that are now available.”The committee-raised bill, SB-830, has seen a dozen amendments and remains on the Senate calendar, along with the DEP proposal.Outdoor wood-burning furnaces could be a good alternative to oil-fired burners, which release sulfur dioxide into the air. But Girard believes most outdoor wood-burning furnaces are not managed properly, making the fine particulate matter a significant issue. He noted the emissions are very different from those from wood stoves.An outdoor wood-burning furnace is controlled by a thermostat.“When the demand for heat is met, a damper closes and the fire dies out, with the heat held in by a water jacket. When the damper opens again, the fire has to reignite from a relatively cold environment, and that causes lots of emissions.”The catalytic converters, which burn emissions a second time and made such a dramatic difference on automotive vehicle exhaust, may well be the solution, Girard said.He referred to research by Nancy Alderman, president of Environment and Human Health Inc. in North Haven, Conn.“She is correct that the furnaces are much worse than other heating sources when it comes to impacts on people.”More information can be found at for the Larsons, they will have to buy a water heater, and they plan to go back to using an indoor woodstove, as long as their daughter can tolerate it.First Selectman Gordon Ridgway and Planning and Zoning Chairman Pat Hare both said there are no plans to write local outdoor wood-burning furnace regulations. “We can’t be any more restrictive than the state is,” Ridgway said, “and now that we know about the latest regulations, we can make sure our permitting is appropriate.”But there is an option to supersede the state, and 21 of 169 Connecticut towns have done so. Sixteen of them simply prohibit use or new installations of outdoor wood-burning furnaces. Two have moratoriums on new installations and two limit use to the heating season. In this area, Salisbury has regulations that require a special permit and Norfolk prohibits use.

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