Gazette guest column: “Don’t ease controls on wetlands”

Proponents of Northampton’s new wetlands buffer zone regime, which authorizes development as close as 10 feet to wetlands in nine zoning districts, tried to reassure critics by saying developers wouldn’t automatically be entitled to get that close. The reality, however, is Northampton’s Conservation Commission will now be on the defensive whenever it asks developers for more than the minimum specified in the new ordinance. Alexandra Dawson, chair of Hadley’s Conservation Commission, writes in today’s Gazette [emphasis added]:

I thoroughly agree with recent comments to the effect that this is not the time to weaken local controls over development in or near wetlands. Few cities and towns outside Route 495 have local wetlands protection ordinances and bylaws; so what happens to one is likely to happen to others. This is clearly what has happened in Northampton and Greenfield…

…Northampton has adopted changes to its bylaws that limit the setback between development and wetlands in the business district to 10 feet, although it is obvious that 10 feet is not even enough space to accommodate the big yellow machines that do the building. It is true that a recent court decision indicates that wetlands ordinances (or conservation commission regulations adopted under them) should enumerate setbacks so that builders need not guess what will be required of them. Unfortunately, there is also case law stating that whatever is so established limits the commission’s discretion to ask for more unless there is a specific showing of why one proposal stands out from the others. If the setback in the ordinance is 10 feet, it will be very hard for the commission to justify a permit restricting building for 50 feet. For this reason, most eastern Massachusetts bylaws that contain setbacks start at 25 to 50 feet.

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…”

Two Articles on Wetlands in the Valley Advocate
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…

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.”

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

The Wetlands Policy Lawsuit that City Officials Are Afraid Of
We can accept that Northampton should have its key wetlands policies specified by ordinance. However, we disagree that the city needs to lock itself into a buffer zone policy that’s about as weak as any we can find in the state, and at variance with Northampton’s Flood Mitigation Plan of 2004 and its Open Space Plan of 2005. A more balanced ordinance will better serve the long-term interests of the people. Springfield, for example, calls for a 50-foot no-touch buffer zone around wetlands.

Lawsuits are a serious matter. So is flooding, and so is paving over trees and wetlands in a way that will change our local landscape for decades.

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)