Our Response to Jim Levey’s Letter to the Gazette

Today’s Gazette features a brief mention of our campaign to preserve wetlands buffer zones (“Group campaigns for wetlands”) and a letter from Jim Levey of Northampton, “Proposed wetlands measure deserves everyone’s support”. Mr. Levey believes our positions are “not based on fact”…

I support the proposed wetlands ordinance, a culmination of over two years’ work by the Conservation Commission, based on input from citizens, business owners, conservation commissions in other towns, and environmentalists and other scientific experts.

In recent weeks some residents living on or near North Street have mounted a campaign by petition and postcard to derail this work. The information being used to support their position is not based on fact and only serves to stir up sentiment against a well-crafted ordinance. What is not revealed is that their campaign was created just to stop a possible condo development near their homes.

Their postcard states that the no-build zone that protects wetlands is about to be slashed to a mere 10 feet. This is just not true. Northampton has never had a no-build zone – the proposed ordinance creates one…

Don’t torpedo a well-crafted ordinance for “Not in My Backyard” reasons. The ordinance deserves everyone’s support.
Our call for a 50-foot no-disturbance buffer around wetlands is entirely consistent with the findings of Northampton’s Flood Mitigation Plan of 2004 and its Open Space Plan of 2005, both of which were approved by our City Council. The Flood Mitigation Plan said 100-foot buffer zones were an effective flood mitigation strategy, and that the Wetlands Protection Act should be consistently enforced. The Open Space Plan termed the loss of wildlife habitats and natural flood buffering areas to development to be “Northampton’s most serious environmental problem.”

We stand by our claim that the proposed wetlands ordinance is materially more permissive in the 15% of Northampton that is most built-up. These zones have the city’s most dense concentration of people and property, and are most in need of the flood protection that wetlands provide. Our existing wetlands regulations foreground the protection of the environment as their purpose. By contrast, the proposed regulations prominently “encourage infill development”. This new orientation automatically puts the Conservation Commission on the defensive whenever a developer can plausibly argue a project represents infill. These articles explore the contrast between the existing and the proposed regulations in more detail:

The proposed ordinance is not consistent with past practice, and favors substantial new encroachments on Northampton’s wetlands

Is the Proposed Wetlands Ordinance Similar to Current Buffer Zone Policy? Judge for Yourself
While the existing regulations may have permitted developers to encroach to within zero feet of wetlands, in practice this has been rare. For example, a review of the Conservation Commission’s minutes from 2004 (PDF) finds the following:

In the case of Dudanake NOI, 12/9/04, the applicant proposed to disturb 26% of a 50-foot buffer. The minutes report: “Sweetser asked if the NCC has ever permitted a project with this much disturbance. Body and Carbin said no.”
Our postcard does not call for Councilors to “torpedo” the proposed wetlands ordinance. It does call on them to make some simple changes, namely to require 50-foot no-disturbance buffers for new development. This is an entirely mainstream standard in line with regulations on the books in municipalities like Springfield. Wetlands scientists find that buffers of less than 50 feet represent inadequate protection for people, property, and the natural environment.

Are the members of the North Street Neighborhood Association interested in preserving the comfort, value, safety and attractiveness of their properties? You bet. We would argue these motivations have at least as much merit as the desire of Kohl Construction to make a profit selling condos.

We are not against all infill. We like being able to walk to town. We like it when abandoned parking lots on King Street are put to better use. However, infill should not be used as a trendy excuse to let developers consume large amounts of our remaining urban greenspace and natural flood protection. That’s not sustainable growth, nor a way to increase the attractiveness of in-town living.