City Council Enacts New Wetlands Ordinance, Including 10-Foot Buffers

In a 7-2 vote, Northampton’s City Council gave its final approval to the new Wetlands Ordinance on Thursday night.

Those voting in favor:
Councilor At-Large Michael Bardsley
Ward 1 Councilor Maureen Carney
Ward 2 Councilor Paul Spector
Ward 3 Councilor Marilyn Richards
Ward 4 Councilor David Narkewicz
Ward 5 Councilor David Murphy
Ward 6 Councilor Marianne LaBarge

Those voting against:
Councilor At-Large James Dostal
Ward 7 Councilor Raymond LaBarge

The new ordinance contains provisions for 10-foot wetlands buffer zones in the 15% of Northampton that is most built-up (see Table 1). The North Street Neighborhood Association opposes this as contrary to sound practice in flood mitigation and pollution control. We are also anxious about the loss of urban greenspace that is likely to come with such narrow buffers. At a time when cities like Boston are trying to nurture their in-town greenspace, Northampton is turning the other way.

Councilor Dostal proposed two amendments to the ordinance, but neither was approved by the majority. One amendment called for compensating landowners whose use of their land would be restricted by the vernal pool regulations in the new ordinance. The other called for 50-foot no-disturbance wetlands buffers throughout the city, with an exception for industrial and business districts representing 5% of Northampton’s land area. In those districts, 10-foot buffers would have been permitted in exchange for extraordinary mitigation or open space preservation measures. We applaud Councilor Dostal’s attempt to reduce the risks of narrow buffer zones, especially for those who reside in Northampton’s urban areas. On this latter amendment, he was joined in support by Councilor Raymond LaBarge.

During the discussion of the ordinance, Conservation and Land Use Planner Bruce Young asserted that wetlands buffer zones were less important in Northampton’s more built-up areas, as opposed to those on the outskirts. This seems plausible with respect to wildlife and natural habitats. The wetlands in-town tend to be hemmed in, surrounded by disruptive human activities, and more fragmented. Some are degraded with invasive species and man-made materials such as masonry.

We believe, however, that our in-town buffers are more important than average when it comes to flood mitigation and water pollution. A disproportionate percentage of the people and property of the city are found in the areas now subject to 10-foot wetlands buffers. Our drainage systems there are already under stress. Flood damage reports from Tropical Storm Floyd show clusters of red flags in our urban areas, even under the previous, more restrictive buffer zone regime.

It also stands to reason that stormwater runoff, with its chemicals, oils, sand, silt, and other contaminants, is a more serious issue in our more urban areas, with their large concentrations of human activity, cars and impervious surfaces. Narrow wetlands buffers will enable that pollution to enter our streams and rivers more quickly, with less processing, and in higher volumes. This runs contrary to the spirit of the Connecticut River Strategic Plan (2003), which “proposes the removal of impervious surfaces within 50 feet of streams…” As former Councilor Alex Ghiselin observed during the public comment period, cleaning up the Connecticut River has been one of the region’s signal achievements during the past generation. It’s a shame to imperil this work.

When illustrating how the new ordinance might be applied, Bruce Young dwelt on the hypothetical example of a homeowner who wants to build an accessory apartment on their property, and how relaxed buffer zone requirements could facilitate that. While this came across as innocuous and benign, there was no discussion of the cumulative impact of many landowners encroaching on wetlands. It’s easy to see how the Conservation Commission, by giving away our flood protection piecemeal over time, could materially impact the city’s experience during the next major rainstorm.

Also glossed over was the impact of major projects, such as Kohl Construction’s 26 condo units proposed for the woods behind North Street (original plan, latest update). Besides the units themselves, this project calls for new roads and numerous parking spaces–a considerable amount of new impervious surface. It would result in major disturbance of a large zone within 50 feet of wetlands, a far cry from the impact of one accessory apartment.

Councilor Narkewicz objected to the holding up of Springfield’s wetlands regulations as a model for Northampton. He said that while Springfield requires a minimum of a 50-foot undisturbed buffer, it will grant variances. He neglected to mention that these variances are conditioned on the applicant demonstrating that “work or alterations within the fifty (50) foot buffer will enhance the wetland interests specified under this ordinance”. We stand by our claim that Springfield’s regulations are considerably more friendly to the environment than Northampton’s new ordinance. As the Valley Advocate reports this week, “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…”

We encourage citizens to monitor the ongoing decisions of the Conservation Commission. If new development causes water problems, harms the environment, or mitigation schemes fail, these matters should be brought to the attention of the media and city officials.

See also:

Gazette: “Council adopts wetlands ordinance”
At-large City Councilor James M. Dostal proposed an amendment Thursday that called for increasing the 10 feet no-encroachment zones in urban residential districts to
50 feet because of serious concerns about homes flooding, saying “We shouldn’t be building there…”

“It seems as if this city’s administration has had its imagination seized by development,” said Paige Bridgens, of 12 Northern Avenue. “I’m concerned for the well-being of this town that’s getting paved over.”

Adam Cohen, of North Street and an organizer of the North Street Neighborhood Association said he believes a 50-foot no-[en]croachment zone would be better for the city’s urban residential districts. That, he said, represents “consumer protection for homeowners.”

The Republican: “Wetlands ordinance approved”
The North Street Neighborhood Association, which has expressed concern about a proposed project by developer Douglas A. Kohl, previously presented the council a report it commissioned by Hyla Ecological Services Inc. of Concord, recommending a minimum buffer of 50 feet between wetlands and development to guard against flooding…

At-Large Councilor James M. Dostal, who opposed the ordinance along with Ward 7 Councilor Raymond W. LaBarge, said he was concerned about flooded basements and people being flooded out in concentrated development areas near downtown.

Gazette editorial, 10/5/07
Northampton’s Conservation Commission has experienced a serious lapse in making the minutes of its meetings available to the public…

Regardless of the circumstances, minutes should not be viewed as an administrative headache that can be postponed to a convenient time…

A continued failure to comply with the requirements of state law will only send the wrong message about the city’s desire to operate in an open fashion.

[The minutes of the Conservation Commission through July 2007 have now been posted to the Office of Planning and Development website.]

Hyla Ecological Services Analyzes the Proposed Wetlands Ordinance
“Buffers of less than 50 feet in width are generally ineffective in protecting wetlands. Buffers larger than 50 feet are necessary to protect wetlands from an influx of sediment and nutrients, to protect wetlands from direct human disturbance, to protect sensitive wildlife species from adverse impacts, and to protect wetlands from the adverse effects of changes in quantity of water entering the wetland… (Castelle et al., ‘Wetland Buffers: Use and Effectiveness’, 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.” (Castelle et al., 1992)