Our Response to Suzanne Beck’s Letter to the Gazette

Today’s Gazette publishes a letter from Suzanne Beck, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce: “Wetlands law will help city secure a sustainable future”. Ms. Beck believes the new ordinance will create “new no-disturb areas of 10 to 50 feet”.

Regardless of the merits of the other parts of the proposed ordinance, a 10-foot wetlands buffer is simply not something that should be codified into law. It represents a weakening of present policy and a departure from Northampton’s standard practices to this point. We scoured the municipal wetlands regulations published at the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions. Only Westwood mentions 10-foot buffers, and that only in the context of grandfathered developments:

The presumption that activity undertaken within thirty-five (35) feet of certain resource areas shall alter those resource areas, as set out in Section 8(k) of this By-law, shall not apply to (a) any lot shown on a subdivision plan filed and approved by the Planning Board pursuant to General Laws chapter 41, sections 81 P or 81 S, for which application for Planning Board endorsement or approval has been made prior to March 1, 1998, to (b) any lot otherwise in existence as of March 1, 1998, or to ( c ) the repair, maintenance, alteration, reconstruction or expansion of any structure in existence as of March 1, 1998. Such land and structures shall be subject to the presumption that any activity undertaken within ten (10) feet of the boundary of a wetland, bank, pond, vernal pool, stream or river shall alter that resource area. The subdivision of any lot otherwise grandfathered pursuant to (a) or (b), above, shall be subject to the 35 foot set- back presumption.
With few exceptions, Northampton has generally left the 50-foot buffer zone around wetlands undisturbed. In December 2004, for example, the Conservation Commission discussed an applicant who proposed to disturb 26% of a 50-foot buffer. The minutes (PDF) report: “Sweetser asked if the [Commission] has ever permitted a project with this much disturbance. Body and Carbin said no.”

We can appreciate that loosening wetlands protections in the industrial and business districts may stimulate tax revenues from commercial growth. 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 received in taxes.

As City Councilor At-Large Jim Dostal pointed out at the last Council meeting, when inexperienced homebuyers buy near wetlands, they often confront ugly, expensive surprises with water intrusion and home repair. Putting homes on low-quality sites that may flood is not a sustainable way to improve the housing stock of Northampton.

It has been said that Kohl Construction’s condo project proposed for North Street is a perfect example of the kind of infill we can expect under the relaxed rules. Some of the condos are situated well inside the 50-foot buffer, barely three feet in elevation over a gently sloping wetland whose boundary is exceptionally diffuse. The more elevated portion of this site contains a lot known to have experienced flood damage from Tropical Storm Floyd (1999). Ask yourself, would you commit your life savings to buy a condo on such a site? Would you encourage a friend to buy one? 50-foot buffers represent consumer protection for homeowners.

During the last council 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 a 50-foot no-build zone under the new ordinance.

That’s great for Ward 6, but the more urban parts of Wards 1 through 5 deserve the same protection.

We believe all of Northampton’s residents should have the same level of wetlands protection they enjoy in Springfield. We ask our Councilors not to reject the entire ordinance, but to amend Table 1 to specify 50-foot no-disturbance buffer zones throughout the city. At the very least, this level of protection should be secured for urban residential zones URB and URC.

If not amended, the proposed ordinance will impose a great deal of flooding risk on homeowners who don’t deserve it and can’t afford it.

See also:

Two Articles on Wetlands in the Valley Advocate
Editor Tom Vannah:

…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.
Staff writer Kendra Thurlow:

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…

…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?
Hyla Ecological Services Analyzes the Proposed Wetlands Ordinance
…the consensus of the scientific literature is clearly that the value and functions of wetlands are severely compromised when buildings, roads, lawns, fields, etc, are constructed too close to the wetland edges…

…findings are summarized in Castelle et al., 1992:

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).
From my own experience, I recommend a simpler approach that maintains a 50-foot nonencroachment zone in all cases except for those carefully specified. If “infill” development is to be one such criterion for exception to the non-encroachment rule, it should be tightly defined, ideally through a mapped overlay. Moreover, the ordinance should give more guidance as to what constitutes suitable mitigation for closer encroachment upon wetlands. The standard of net “improvement” is almost impossible to measure and very unlikely to be attained.

Mike Kirby: Compensatory Wetland on Carlon Drive Not Working
Today if you stand by the pond and look down into it, you’ll see the check dam is now about two feet underwater. You can’t even see where they planted the marshgrass and flowers. The area is under water. Even in a fairly dry summer, the detention pond is only about a foot and a half from the top of the bank. There’s no storage to speak of, no discharge, no filtering. As it is constructed now, grey water from the parking lots and the access street goes directly into the swamp and the Connecticut River.

Alex Ghiselin, Letter to Gazette: “Don’t let development encroach on our wetlands”
The failure of the storm water system built as a part of the Northampton High School renovation six years ago illustrates why protecting wetlands is so important. Silt has filled the retention pond so there is no capacity to slow a storm surge which now flows unimpeded into the Mill River and contributes to flooding downstream. This accumulated silt also raised the water table and spills ground water into nearby basements…

Photos Show: Man-Made Lakes and Stormwater Retention Systems Are No Substitute for Natural Wetlands