Hyla Report: Northampton Wetlands Buffers at Narrow End of Massachusetts Spectrum

The North Street Neighborhood Association recently engaged Hyla Ecological Services to compare Northampton’s new wetlands buffer zones to those found elsewhere in Massachusetts. As a refresher, here are the buffer zones in Northampton (Municipal Code, Chapter 337-10-E-2). Note the multiple zoning districts where encroachment to within 10 feet is permitted:

The City’s general policy is no encroachment within 50 feet of wetlands.
The Commission may allow work within the fifty-foot non-encroachment
zone in response to a written request for a waiver, which shall include
a written and plan view assessment as part of the application process
as follows:

(a) Projects in areas downgradient of wetlands and projects in areas already degraded by impervious surfaces from existing structures or pavement.
(b) Projects
in certain infill areas, in accordance with Table (1) in § 337-10,
where development includes mitigation measures that will improve the
existing condition of the wetlands or adjacent upland area and is otherwise permissible under the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act.
(c) Limited development projects, as defined in the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act regulations.

Zoning District No-Encroachment Zone
Central Business, General Business, Neighborhood Business, General Industrial, Special Industrial, Planned Village, Medical 10 feet from wetlands
Urban Residential-B and Urban Residential-C 35 feet from wetlands
10 feet from
wetlands may be allowed at the discretion of the Conservation Commission if
applicant provides extraordinary mitigation, replication, restoration
or open space preservation measures
All water supply protection overlay areas zoned residential as of
January 1, 2006, regardless of the underlying zoning, and all other
Only in conformance with the performance standards of this chapter
Business Park See § 337-10C

Hyla reviewed wetland bylaws and regulations compiled by the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions to generate a representative survey of buffer zone regimes around the state. The chart below summarizes their findings. The text of the bylaws analyzed may be downloaded as a PDF.

* NB =
Hopkinton allows 10′ utilities, 15′ driveway, Manchester allows 25′ driveway
Northborough has lowest no disturb
setback of 15′, Methuen has 20′, all others have min. of 25′

With 10-foot buffer zones, Northampton is clearly at the narrow end of the spectrum. Sturbridge wetland regulations give some of the reasons for having larger buffer zones:



Based on
systematic field observation in the Town of Sturbridge by the Sturbridge Conservation
Commission, any structures less than 50 feet from a resource area create
temporary construction and long-term “normal daily use” impacts within the
25-foot buffer. The minimum distance for
a new structure will be 50-feet from any resource area. The new structure setback will not apply to
any structure existing prior to the adoption of these regulations. However structures being removed and
replaced must comply with the regulations in effect at the time of the




Habitat Values Associated with Specific Buffer Width









in feet)






habitat value; useful for temporary wildlife activities








protects stream habitat; poor habitat value; useful for




activities of wildlife





general wildlife and avian habitat








Wildlife habitat value; some value as avian habitat








May have
use as a wildlife corridor; general avian habitat value








general wildlife habitat value








Fair to
good general wildlife and avian habitat value








general wildlife habitat value; may protect significant wildlife habitat

See also:

Hyla Ecological Services Analyzes the Proposed Wetlands Ordinance
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)

Just Released: Planner’s Guide to Wetland Buffers for Local Governments
Most striking is that some locales desire wider buffers in areas of intense land use to address the higher levels of pollution and runoff. By contrast, Northampton has its narrowest buffers in these

Planner’s Guide to Wetland Buffers for Local Governments
Environmental Law Institute, March 2008

[emphasis added]

Depending on site conditions, much of the sediment
and nutrient removal may occur within the first
15-30 feet of the buffer, but buffers of 30-100 feet or
more will remove pollutants more consistently. Buffer
distances should be greater in areas of steep slope and
high intensity land use.
Larger buffers will be more effective
over the long run because buffers can become
saturated with sediments and nutrients, gradually
reducing their effectiveness, and because it is much
harder to maintain the long term integrity of small buffers.
In an assessment of 21 established buffers in two
Washington counties, Cooke (1992) found that 76%
of the buffers were negatively altered over time. Buffers
of less than 50 feet were more susceptible to degradation
by human disturbance. In fact, no buffers of
25 feet or less were functioning to reduce disturbance
to the adjacent wetland
. The buffers greater than 50
feet showed fewer signs of human disturbance…

…The Environmental Law Institute’s
(2003) review of the science found that effective buffer sizes for wildlife protection may range from 33 to more than 5000 feet,
depending on the species…

Enacted local government buffer ordinances show
a wide range of wetland buffer dimensions. The lowest
we found was 15 feet measured horizontally from the
border of the wetland
, with the highest approximately
350 feet. Several ordinances set 500 feet as a distance
for greater regulatory review of proposed activities, but
do not require nondisturbance at this distance. Often
the ordinances provide a range of protections, with
nondisturbance requirements nearest the wetland and
various prohibitions and limitations as the distance
from the wetland increases. Among the ordinances we
examined, the largest number of ordinances clustered
around nondisturbance or minimal disturbance buffers
of 50 feet or 100 feet
, with variations (usually upward
variations) beyond these based on particular wetland
characteristics, species of concern, and to account for
areas with steeper slopes. The largest ordinance-prescribed
buffer distances (350 feet or more) tended to
be for tidal wetlands and vernal pool wetlands…

Springfield Wetland Regulations: “A Minimum of a fifty (50) foot undisturbed buffer”
minimum of a fifty (50) foot undisturbed buffer shall be established
adjacent to any vegetated wetland, bank, lake, stream or river,
intermittent or continuous, natural or artificial and certified or
uncertified vernal pools. No work, structures or alterations will be
allowed within the fifty (50) foot buffer…

Connecticut River Watershed Action Plan: Remove impervious surfaces within 50 feet of streams

Gazette guest column: “Don’t ease controls on wetlands” (10/25/07, emphasis added)
[Alexandra Dawson, chair of Hadley’s Conservation Commission, writes,] …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.

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

The following chart makes clear that the proposed ordinance is not
consistent with past practice, that it favors substantial new
encroachments on Northampton’s wetlands, and that recent revisions have
made it ever more lopsided in favor of developers:

Public officials have given us to understand that at least one permit
to encroach within 10 feet of wetlands has been issued in the
Industrial Park district in recent years. Nevertheless, we believe that
a 50-foot no-build buffer zone has been the more general rule.

Is the Proposed Wetlands Ordinance Similar to Current
Buffer Zone Policy? Judge for Yourself

in a review of the Commission’s minutes from 2004 (PDF),
we found one case where 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

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

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

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…”

Gazette: “Council adopts wetlands ordinance”
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…”

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.”

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.”

Flood and Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan: Floyd Flood Damage Reported
Behind View Avenue; Avoid Building on Filled Wetlands

In a table
of Existing Mitigation Strategies, the plan includes a “100 foot buffer
around wetlands and the wetland resource area itself…” It says this
strategy has been “Effective”, and says that an option to improve it
would be to “Strengthen Wetland Ordinance”…

One of the
“Priority Actions” is to “Consistently enforce the Wetlands Protection
Act to maintain the integrity of the 200’ riverfront area, wetlands and
wetland buffer areas.”

Flooding is already affecting Northampton’s built-up areas during major storms. Weakening wetlands
buffer zone requirements downtown will make this worse

EPA: Wetlands and Flood Protection
within and downstream of urban areas are particularly valuable,
counteracting the greatly increased rate and volume of surface-water
runoff from pavement and buildings…

Snow and Slush Expose Limits of Storm Drains
If infill is to mean adding more impervious surface to the already
built-up areas of Northampton, this will increase pressure on our
man-made stormwater drainage system. The limits of this system were on
display this week, as snow, sleet and nearly 3 inches of rain came to
Pioneer Valley.

Gazette: “Region’s storms going to extremes, report finds”
Wetlands can moderate both flooding and drought, absorbing excess water
during storms and releasing it slowly during periods of dryness.
Today’s report underscores the value of our remaining wetlands in

Paved Surfaces, Salt and Water Bodies: A Bad Mix
…Kohl Construction’s proposed condo development off North Street calls for paved surfaces as close as 35 feet or less from the wetlands surrounding Millyard Brook.

Topographical Map Shows How Kohl Condo Proposal Will Eat Into a Rare Stand of Mature Trees in Downtown
following view dramatizes the considerable amount of impervious surface
already surrounding the area off North Street that Kohl Construction
proposes to develop, especially around King Street and the Coca-Cola
plant. Kohl’s “infill” project will convert a significant amount of the
remaining greenspace to impervious surface. The presence of
Millyard Brook shows that this area serves as a natural sink for water in the neighborhood.