Two Articles on Wetlands in the Valley Advocate

This week’s Valley Advocate has two articles addressing wetlands. At the front of the paper, editor Tom Vannah pens “Between the Lines: No Time to Relax — The Wetlands Protection Act is under attack”:

…West Brook is one of the most closely studied trout streams in the United States. I’ve run into many federal fish biologists who spend hours tracking, tagging and counting fish, including a strain of brook trout found nowhere else in the world…

Despite the attention paid to the stream by scientists, West Brook has not been spared the ill effects of development. When I first started fishing there nine years ago, the road that follows the stream up toward Conway was dirt most of the way. It is now all paved…

Thanks to Northampton’s dam on the West Whately Reservoir, little to no water flows over into West Brook in the summer…

In Greenfield, the state Wetlands Protection Act is viewed by many as an onerous restriction that stands in the way of the development of a Big Box store on the French King Highway; Mayor Christine Forgey has purged the Conservation Commission of people such as Steven Walk, the longtime chairman and a fish biologist, to make room for members such as Dee Letourneau, the new chairwoman, who recently said she didn’t want the Conservation Commission to be “a board that stops something.”

…Before we let our elected officials whittle away at the laws protecting our wetlands, we should take a good look around and consider, not whether to relax the protections, but whether to make them more restrictive.

Kendra Thurlow follows up with “Waterlogged: Will a proposed Northampton ordinance strengthen protection of the city’s wetlands? or pave the way for development?”

Records from 2004 show that only once did the Commission grant a permit for work requiring new—as opposed to remedial—encroachment within the 50-foot no-encroachment zone. This permit was granted for the construction of a temporary parking lot at Cooley Dickinson Hospital and was estimated to compromise 10 percent of land within the 50-foot zone…

…[Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions executive director Ken] Pruitt did express the improbability of not disturbing areas within 10 feet of a wetland if developers were allowed to build as close to it as 10 feet…

While most of the municipalities that have enacted wetlands ordinances are located in the eastern part of the state, there are several towns/cities in the Valley which have done so as well, including Amherst, Belchertown, Holyoke, Longmeadow, Chicopee, South Hadley and Springfield, most of which have minimum setbacks of 50 feet. However, the Springfield Conservation Commission does grant permits for work being done closer than 50 feet to the wetlands if the developer is going to make significant landscape improvements, such as vegetating a previously littered riverfront. A member of the Springfield Conservation Commission who declined to be identified stated that Northampton’s 10-foot buffer zone in parts of the city was not smart, as developers usually are afforded a five-foot discretion either way. Also, the official noted, it is nearly impossible not to impact wetlands when working at such close range…

[Dr. Bryan Windmiller of Hyla Ecological Services states] …that while he believes the drafters of the ordinance want to encourage infill development in the inner city as opposed to sprawl, the wording of the ordinance makes what constitutes infill and what is acceptable wetlands mitigation and/or replication unclear, thus leaving the Conservation Commission vulnerable to developers’ claims as to what is or is not acceptable infill and mitigation.

…adding provisions to protect vernal pools where none existed before is inarguably a step forward in protecting Northampton’s wetlands. But at what cost does this protection come? Are vernal pools the city’s bargaining chips, surrendered to environmentalists so that the city can allow development close to inner-city wetlands?

See also:

Hyla Ecological Services Analyzes the Proposed Wetlands Ordinance
Negative consequences to wetlands of insufficient setbacks from wetland edges include:

  • changes in wetland temperature
  • increased frequency and severity of flooding
  • increases in abundance of exotic invasive species
  • increases in pollutant loads
  • increased rate of sediment deposition
  • increased fecal coliform counts
  • increases in nutrient levels and in nutrophillic nuisance vegetation
  • increased levels of direct human disturbance and trash accumulation
  • altered distribution of native wetland plant and animal species
  • decreased diversity in native wetland plant and animal species.
…Buffer function was found to be directly related to the width of the buffer. Ninety-five percent of buffers smaller than 50 feet suffered a direct human impact within the buffer, while only 35% of buffers wider than 50 feet suffered direct human impact. Human impacts to the buffer zone resulted in increased impact on the wetland by noise, physical disturbance of foraging and nesting areas, and dumping refuse and yard waste. Overall, large buffers reduced the degree of changes in water quality, sediment load, and the quantity of water entering the adjacent wetland. As a rule, buffers were subjected to a reduction in size over time. Of 21 sites examined, 18 were found to have reduced buffer zones within one to eight years following establishment. (P. iv, bold-type added).

Our Response to Jim Levey’s Letter to the Gazette
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.

Press Release: Northampton, MA Citizens Campaign to Protect Their Urban Wetlands, Prevent Flooding
On October 4, Northampton’s City Council plans to vote on an ordinance that would slash the no-build zone around wetlands to as little as 10 feet in many districts. Up to this point, 50 feet has been the general standard, with limited exceptions. Citizens are concerned that the new rules will increase the risk of urban flooding and water pollution, and decrease the attractiveness of in-town living…

The proposed new wetlands rules have been before the city for about two years, yet those who stand to lose the most from this ordinance have not been well heard. These are ordinary citizens who reside in the more densely populated area of Wards 1-4, plus parts of Ward 5. These zones–about 15% of Northampton’s land area–contain a disproportionately large percentage of Northampton’s homes.

Wetlands are a key component of Northampton’s natural drainage systems. The extensive flood damage Northampton suffered under Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999 showed that the city’s stormwater management systems are stretched even under its current wetlands policy. The proposed ordinance threatens to dramatically ratchet up the pressure on many of Northampton’s in-town wetlands.

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