Where We Stand on Wetlands: A Review of the Issues

On September 20, the Northampton City Council will revisit a proposed revision to the wetlands protection ordinance that would allow new development to encroach as close as 10 feet in downtown districts. The current ordinance generally prefers a 100-foot buffer zone. The new ordinance assumes that meaningful mitigation can be done when development disturbs a wetland. Unfortunately, studies show most man-made wetlands fail. Common problems include ugly, polluted pools, reduced biodiversity, mosquito breeding, and drowning hazards for children.

This revision excessively favors developers at the expense of downtown residents who depend on urban greenspace for flood protection, cooling, pollution control, and the gentle beauty that is a hallmark of Northampton’s enduring appeal. The City Council should not vote on this ordinance without much more input from citizens and environmental experts.

The revised ordinance is weaker than the standard adopted by most other Massachusetts communities, where 50- and 100-foot buffer zones are the norm. Framingham (PDF) protects up to 125 feet; their bylaw presumes that “non-water dependent projects can always be designed to avoid loss of wetlands areas”.Vernal pools are some of the most fragile and precious portions of our wetlands. They are seasonally occurring pools that serve as essential breeding grounds for frogs and other amphibians. Because these pools periodically dry up, the fish that prey on these amphibians cannot live there. The breeding habitat includes not only the pools themselves but the surrounding upland areas where the hatchlings disperse.

Experts agree that many amphibian species disperse at least 500 feet from the breeding pool. The provision currently under consideration in Northampton requires only 200 feet (PDF). Conservationists feel this is a fair compromise with the interests of property owners.

Wetlands benefit humans as well as other species. During major storms, such as Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999, these streams, pools and swampy areas absorb and slow the progress of floodwaters. This mitigates property damage, erosion, and pollution. Most of Northampton’s remaining downtown greenspace exists in low-lying areas that are most susceptible to flooding. Our predecessors in the city wisely left these areas unbuilt. Even during normal weather conditions, wetlands help purify our rivers, streams and water supplies by processing wastes and reducing sediment loads.

At a time when cities like Boston and Springfield are trying to add greenspace to turn depressed neighborhoods into attractive destinations, Northampton appears to be moving in the other direction. The concept of “infill” is popular with City Hall as a formula for environmentally friendly growth. Denser development can reduce dependence on cars and maximize the use of existing infrastructure. But while reclaiming brownfields and vacant lots is generally a net gain for the city, aggressively paving over our trees and wetland buffer zones is not. It would be ironic if Northampton residents had to drive to an outlying greenbelt to experience the flora and fauna that once abutted our backyards.

The City Council should table the flawed wetlands ordinance until it has been revised to better reflect the people’s concern for our environment and the future health of our town.

See also:

The Wetlands Policy Lawsuit that City Officials Are Afraid Of
We can accept that Northampton should have its key wetlands policies specified by ordinance. However, we disagree that the city needs to lock itself into a buffer zone policy that’s about as weak as any we can find in the state, and at variance with Northampton’s Flood Mitigation Plan of 2004 and its Open Space Plan of 2005. A more balanced ordinance will better serve the long-term interests of the people. Springfield, for example, calls for a 50-foot no-touch buffer zone around wetlands.

NSNA Petition Signature Total Reaches 2,217
This includes 1,470 signatures from residents of Northampton and 747 from non-residents. The population of Northampton is estimated to be 28,592, so over 5% of residents have signed in less than two months. The petitions began circulating on July 21.