After two and a half years of weekly meetings, the nine-member Tick Borne Disease Action Committee has wrapped up its work with a 90-page final report, several hundred pages of supporting documentation and a so-called minority report written by four members who disagree with some of the group's overall recommendations, namely the ones to kill deer.
"I feel we produced a report that I'm personally proud to have my name on," said Michele McLeod, one of the co-chairmen of the committee.
The final product is perhaps the most exhaustive municipally produced report on the issue of tick-borne diseases.
“You’ve created a new standard,” First Selectman Pat Llodra said of the report and thick binder of supporting documentation during Monday's Board of Selectmen meeting. “It’s outstanding.”
Newtown has the highest reported incidence per population of Lyme disease in Fairfield County, accoridng to the committee, which received the data from state public health officials.
The committee, chaired by McLeod, a pediatric opthamologist, and Robert Grossman, a state medical examiner, was formed in 2009 and initially expected to wrap its work in six months. Membership in the committee was comprised of Newtown residents, several with advanced degrees who work as doctors, transportation researchers, attorney, professor and in other fields.
But the months soon turned into years as they devoted hundreds of hours into taking an exhaustive look at defining the problem of tick-borne diseases, including its history; medical implications to humans; connection between deer and ticks; impact of deer on the environment; deer and vehicle crashes; public information strategies; municipal management options; Lyme disease vaccine; and performance metrics.
“I do think you have the definitive document on this by far,” committee Peter Licht said.
Though the scope of work was broad, the one area sure to draw the most attention had to do with the contentious recommendations to kill deer, which the committee passed in a divided vote. The report lists vote outcomes of each recommendation and while, in general, many of the recommendations were unanimously endorsed, the ones having to do with lethal deer-related methods were split.
The majority of the committee recommended Newtown reduce its deer population by promoting recreational hunting, implementing controlled hunts on town-owned property, encouraging controlled hunts on private property, hiring professional sharpshooters and encouraging property owners to open their lands to hunters, sharpshooters and.
The members who opposed those recommendations took the additional step of producing a separate report that described their dissenting opinion, which was that deer culls would be ineffective at combating tick-borne diseases and would detract from other methods.
“If you are spending your time focused on deer, you are less likely to spend it on other things,” committee member Mark Alexander said.
Many communities grapple with the same issues, with some deer experts saying that a deer density of 20 per square mile would reduce the incidence of Lyme disease while others argue that low density would be difficult to achieve or practically unattainable.
In some areas of Newtown, deer density has been determined to be about 70 to 105 deer per square mile, according to the committee.
Members acknowledged the controversy surrounding the killing of deer, although they also urged the public to read the other sections of the document.
“There is a lot of great ideas in this document that aren’t just about deer,” committee member Neil Chaudhary said. “Make sure they read the other sections too. There’s a lot of important sections including the role of deer.”
While the selectmen spent time reviewing the document, the board will not make any recommendations for next steps until after the election at which point committee members will likely be invited back for input on those next steps, Llodra said.
"I don't think we can go onto those next steps without calling on you more," she told the committee.
Other committee members involved in the effort were Kirk Blanchard, David Delia, Mary Gaudet-Wilson, Kim Harrison, George Miller and Maggie Shaw. Many others also contributed in the form of support staff, particularly Patrice Boily and David Shugarts.