Barnstable Wetland Ordinance: “An undisturbed buffer zone 50 ft. in width shall be provided”

Barnstable is another Massachusetts community that emphasizes the importance of a 50-foot undisturbed zone around wetlands. Its regulations (PDF) state:

…An undisturbed buffer zone 50 ft. in width shall be provided between wetland resource areas and the limit of site disturbance. It is recommended that proposed structures within the buffer zone be located no closer than 20’ from the landward limit of the buffer, so that attendant construction, landscaping, and maintenance activities may ensue without buffer zone insult.

Where a 50 ft. undisturbed buffer zone exists and is proposed to remain intact, a presumption shall be extended that approved work within the 50-100 ft. jurisdictional zone shall not require further buffer zone enhancement. Where an undisturbed buffer zone of less than 50 ft. exists, work proposed anywhere within Conservation Commission jurisdiction at a site shall be subject to mitigation planting requirements aimed at enhancing the dimensions of the buffer and the suitability of its vegetation.

This regulation shall not be construed to preclude access paths, vista pruning or construction of water-dependent structures within the buffer zone, any of which may be permitted at the Commission’s discretion. These regulations notwithstanding, the Conservation Commission will consider any and all proposals for activity within the buffer zone on a site specific basis, disposing of each according to its merit and the degree to which wetland interests have been protected and preserved at the locus…

Prevention of Pollution

The role that a protective buffer zone plays in the maintenance of viable wetland resource areas has been frequently discussed in the scientific literature. Omernik (1977) thoroughly documented the dramatic increase in nitrogen and phosphorous loading to wetlands and waterbodies as their adjacent watersheds are cleared. Water quality, it was demonstrated, can be better maintained if protective buffer strips are preserved along stream edges.

As surface runoff from developed sites flows toward a wetland resource area, the buffer zone can provide a site where eroded sediments settle, where nutrients from fertilizers are adsorbed onto soil elements, and where transition zone vegetation can uptake unbound nutrients preventing nuisance algal blooms in adjacent waters (Harris and Gosselink, 1989).

Nutrients are by no means the only pollutant which may degrade wetland resource areas. Surface runoff from developed sites carries a diverse and potent pollution load: hydrocarbons, lawn chemicals, metals, bacteria, and viruses are common constituents (Diamond and Nilson, 1988)…


The transitional assemblage of trees, shrubs and groundcover (containing both wetland and upland elements) frequently found in buffer zones has been found significant to the support of a greater number of native and specialist wildlife species in the interior of resource areas which they border. Put another way, similar habitats provide, a gradual transition zone that is not as inhospitable as an abrupt habitat “edge” (Harris, 1984b)…

Cumulative Effects

Cumulative effects are defined and discussed in Chapter 237, Wetlands Protection, of the General Ordinances of the Code of the Town of Barnstable. Cumulative effects result from individually minor but collectively significant actions taking place over a period of time (Council on Environmental Quality, 1978). While Chapter 237 provides that the Commission may deny any project which will have a significant cumulative effect on a wetland or its values, our permit-level activities (i.e. site disturbance) are difficult to measure on the scale of cumulative impacts (i.e. watersheds) (Gosselink & Lee, 1989). Thus, techniques employed for individual permit review are not robust enough to resolve potential significant cumulative impacts, even though it may be clear that the collective impact of many such proposals could adversely affect or imperil a wetland resource area. A reasonable hedge against the cumulative impact is the ascription of a flanking undisturbed buffer of suitable width…

How Wide a Buffer?

The Massachusetts Audubon Society has recommended the imposition of 300 foot wide natural undisturbed buffers in those areas that directly abut critical resource areas. Projects proposed for prohibition within the buffer zone include both non-water-dependent activities (building construction, sewage disposal systems) and water-dependent activities (bulkheads, revetments) (Brady and Buchsbaum, 1989). Minimum buffer zone widths as mandated by other Northeast states for areas of critical environmental concern range from 200 ft. in Rhode Island to up to 300 ft. in Maine, Maryland and New Jersey.


The Conservation Commission finds that the uniform provision of an undisturbed buffer zone width of 50’ will serve to insulate wetland resource areas from adverse impacts stemming from development elsewhere in the buffer zone. In cases where the slope of an undisturbed buffer exceeds 18%, or in any instance where the scope or nature of the project is likely to require a greater spatial offset to wetland resource areas, the Commission reserves the right to increase buffer zone width to a more suitable dimension.

See also:

Springfield Wetland Regulations: A minimum of a fifty (50) foot undisturbed buffer
As with protection for significant trees, once again our friends in Springfield are outpacing Northampton when it comes to environmental protection. Here are excerpts from Springfield’s Wetland Protection Regulations currently in force. We have emphasized selected passages with bold type.

Contrast Springfield’s regulations with the ones that will come before Northampton’s City Council on September 6. The latter will encourage development to encroach as close as 10 feet to wetlands in downtown districts, and vernal pool protection is in limbo.

Northampton’s Flood and Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan: Floyd Flood Damage Reported Behind View Avenue; Avoid Building on Filled Wetlands
In a table of Existing Mitigation Strategies, the plan includes a “100 foot buffer around wetlands and the wetland resource area itself…” It says this strategy has been “Effective”, and says that an option to improve it would be to “Strengthen Wetland Ordinance”…

Belchertown Wetlands Regulations

Intermittent Streams Merit a 100-Foot Buffer Zone in Hopkinton

Benefits of Urban Wetlands and Their Buffer Areas