Northampton Open Space Plan: “This loss of habitat and natural flood buffering areas is Northampton’s most serious environmental problem”

Some have criticized members of NSNA for intruding themselves in the wetlands debate at a late hour. Where have you been, they say. We’ve been discussing this for years.

That’s true, although not a convincing rebuttal to our arguments. Sometimes the downsides to a concept that sounds good (infill) aren’t obvious until someone proposes a specific development. Moreover, we have discovered city planners making many of the same arguments we do in documents prepared in 2004 (Flood Mitigation Plan) and 2005 (below).

If the City Council on September 6 goes back on principles it signed off on just two or three years ago, the people can be forgiven if they don’t leap to participate in future public forums and visioning exercises. It doesn’t matter what we say, people could reasonably conclude. City officials will find a way to do what they want to do.

Northampton’s Office of Planning and Development prepared an Open Space and Recreation Plan (PDF) in 2005. The City Council approved it in December 2005. The plan observes how development has encroached on wetlands and degraded the natural environment. We have emphasized certain passages with bold type:

This plan meets the Open Space and Recreation Plan requirements of the Self-Help Act and is an element of the Northampton Comprehensive Plan. The Conservation Commission, Recreation Commission and the Planning Board have adopted the plan. (p.5)

…Although never as polluted as the section of the river below the Holyoke Dam, the water quality in the Connecticut River in Northampton has improved since 1972, when the federal Clean Water Act was passed… There have also been some improvements in pollution from stormwater runoff. That source, though, remains the most significant threat to water quality. (p.18)

Deer, bear and other mammals thrive in the woodland and forest edge… (p.19)

…Although Northampton has diverse plant and animal habitats, the habitat is not as productive as it once was. Like most areas in New England, wetlands were filled to allow development, prior to federal and state wetlands protection acts. Even with the passage of those acts, small amounts of wetlands, especially isolated wetlands, continue to be lost or degraded because of nearby development. As development extends up valley corridors and increasingly up hillsides, habitats are being fragmented. This fragmentation is degrading the range and productivity of the flora and fauna in those areas. (p.20) …As development occurs, especially development with little sensitivity to the community’s views, some scenic views are being lost. (p.22)

…Much of Northampton has sensitive ecological resources, especially the water resources such as wetlands, streams, floodplain, and drinking water aquifers and watersheds. Much of the richest wildlife habitat in Northampton is at some risk, and some surface water and wetland resources are slowly being degraded. This occurs for the obvious reasons: Wildlife habitat is converted to urban and suburban land, and development cuts into ranges and habitat types.

This loss of habitat and natural flood buffering areas is Northampton’s most serious environmental problem. Non-point source pollution (rain and snow runoff laden with pollutants) also poses significant water quality problems. (p.23) …Through the open space and recreation planning process, we have identified the following as critical natural resource protection needs:

…5. Limiting development that could be damaging to environmental resources, including:

  • Floodplains
  • Wetlands and buffer areas
  • All water courses and bodies
  • Prime and active agricultural land
  • Sensitive natural areas
  • Wildlife habitat and corridors
…During numerous public meetings and hearings and meetings with city boards and officials, the Planning Board, Conservation Commission, and Recreation Commission have consistently heard concerns that important open space and recreation needs are not being met.

The Conservation Commission and Planning Board, working through the public planning process, have identified the following, as Northampton’s most pressing open space needs:

…Passive recreation opportunities throughout the city… Protection of vistas and “viewsheds”… Acquisition for permanent protection of a range of critical and natural plant and animal habitats, including [wetlands]… Preservation of open space parcels that help define Northampton’s character… Encouraging or requiring that development be sensitive to ecological resources, vistas, and open space… (p.68-69)

Significant inconsistencies between vision and current practices:
1) New development is not contributing to the preservation of open space and is converting open space to housing much faster than open space is being preserved…

Ensure new downtown development meshes with architectural heritage…

Promote traditional neighborhood development patterns. (p.72)

…Work with neighborhoods to identify key parcels which might not have city-wide recreation or conservation significance, and therefore are not identified in this plan, but which are a special place or a local treasure for that neighborhood and demanding of special attention. (p.76-77)

…The Conservation Commission has identified the following parcels for acquisition over the next five years. Without more funds for open space acquisition, the City’s character will be adversely affected as development moves into previously undeveloped areas. Several key parcels of conservation land that should have been preserved have been developed because the city did not have the resources to preserve these parcels…

Viewshed along rail-trails and proposed rail trail and bike paths to ensure that rural or otherwise attractive areas remain attractive to users. (p.78-79)

…In addition, the Conservation Commission is interested in acquiring parcels, as yet unidentified, that meet some or all of the following objectives:

Make urban neighborhoods and densely zoned or developed areas more desirable, and thus cut down on suburban sprawl. (p.79)

See also:

Ask the City Council to Stand Up for Wetlands on September 6

Text of the Wetlands and Vernal Pool Ordinances to Be Taken Up by the City Council on September 6

Northampton’s Flood and Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan: Floyd Flood Damage Reported Behind View Avenue; Avoid Building on Filled Wetlands
One of the “Priority Actions” is to “Consistently enforce the Wetlands Protection Act to maintain the integrity of the 200’ riverfront area, wetlands and wetland buffer areas.”

EPA: Wetlands and Flood Protection
Wetlands within and downstream of urban areas are particularly valuable, counteracting the greatly increased rate and volume of surface-water runoff from pavement and buildings.

The Economic Value of Wetlands: Wetlands’ Role in Flood Protection in Western Washington
Western Washington is now one of the fastest growing regions of the country, and the remaining wetlands in rapidly developing areas are increasingly valuable for the flood protection they can provide. At the same time, the increasing pace and density of development is resulting in the natural wetlands systems that are capable of absorbing urban runoff becoming ever more fragmented, even as the need for flood protection grows ever more critical…

Irony of Infill: You Have to Drive to Enjoy Nature

Northampton Redoubt: “North Street area citizens join together”
There was much enthusiasm on display at the barbecue, tempered by concern for the future of the neighborhood. Some questions raised to ponder:

  • How much development is not over-burdensome for the existing neighborhood?…
  • Will the city hear concerns and agree with them?
  • Why does city leadership value open spaces in the outlying areas of the city more highly than open spaces near downtown that add to the quality of life of residents?…