Breaking News: Council Approves New Wetlands Ordinance 7-2 on First Reading

After nearly two hours of debate between Northampton’s City Councilors, the Council voted 7-2 to approve the proposed new wetlands ordinance with some minor amendments. Councilor-At-Large Jim Dostal and Ward 7 Councilor Ray LaBarge voted against the ordinance.

The ordinance must undergo a second reading, presumably at the next City Council meeting on October 4. The next fourteen days represent the public’s last best chance to convince their councilors to amend the ordinance to safeguard Northampton’s natural flood mitigation systems. Specifically, we urge the councilors to require a minimum 50-foot no-build zone around all the city’s wetlands. At the very least, a 50-foot no-build zone should be required in residential zoning districts URB and URC (see map), a suggestion made by Mr. Dostal. Call your councilor today.

We appreciate that loosening wetlands protections in the industrial and business districts may stimulate commercial growth and the associated tax revenues. That’s a fair argument to make. However, it doesn’t apply to letting developers encroach on wetlands in our residential districts. In fact, studies suggest that residential development in America generally compels communities to spend $1.15 or more in services for every $1.00 received in taxes.

The argument was raised that Northampton needs more housing to keep home prices affordable. While it’s plausible that more homes are likely to lead to lower home prices, do we really want to locate those homes in wet areas prone to flooding, in a way that will also increase flood risks for existing residents? In addition, consuming greenspace to make way for development is likely to make our more urban areas hotter, more polluted, more congested and less attractive. None of this sounds like a good way to encourage people to live downtown.

During the meeting, Ward 6 Councilor Marianne LaBarge voiced concern about flooding experienced by her constituents who apparently had homes near wetlands. Conservation and Land Use Planner Bruce Young reassured her that her ward, as a more outlying district, would be protected by 50-foot no-build zone under the new ordinance. That’s great for Ward 6, but the more urban wards deserve the same protection.

Towards the end of the meeting, Mayor Clare Higgins stated that URB and URC would enjoy no-build zones of 35 feet under the new ordinance. This is not accurate. The new ordinance authorizes development up to the 10-foot boundary in these districts, if the applicant provides “extraordinary mitigation, replication, restoration or open space preservation measures”. As Councilor Dostal observed from his long years working in the Department of Public Works, wetlands mitigation and replication has a troubled history in Northampton. The city, for example, has multiple poorly maintained and malfunctioning detention ponds. The prospect of spawning even more of these chancy mitigation schemes is little comfort.