Video: Conservation Commission Meeting of 1/8/09; Challenges of Building Close to Wetland No-Disturb Zones

Here is a Google video of a large portion of the Conservation Commission meeting of January 8. This video was recorded by Lisa Boulerice, and is 1 hour and 47 minutes long. The commissioners discuss at length the difficulties involved with placing structures close to the 10-foot no-disturb zone in Special Industrial zoning districts.

Here are the agenda items shown in this video:

  • Notice of Intent filed by Jim Harrity on behalf of EBD Corp. for the construction of a mixed use building, associated parking areas, driveways, sidewalks, utilities, landscaping and stormwater management system. Project is proposed to take place in the 100-foot buffer zone of Bordering Vegetated Wetlands. Project location is 225 Nonotuck Street, Map Id 23A-281.
  • Notice of Intent filed by Smith College for the relocation of a tennis court, creation of a synthetic playing field, and the paving of an existing gravel parking lot. Work is proposed to take place in Riverfront Area. Project location is College Lane at Smith College, Map Id 31C-15.
  • Continuation of a Notice of Intent filed by Tofino Associates, Inc. and Northern Avenue Homes, Inc. for the construction of twenty-five dwelling units and associated roadways, parking areas, driveways, sidewalks, utilities, landscaping and stormwater management system. Project is proposed to take place in the 100-foot buffer zone of Bordering Vegetated Wetlands. Project location is Northern Avenue, Map Id 25C-12 and 25C-17.

The Northern Avenue Homes project is the Kohl Construction condo proposal that NSNA objects to. There was no substantive discussion of this proposal at this meeting, only an arrangement to conduct a visit to the site on January 20.

We’ll be posting Kohl’s latest proposal shortly. This proposal will be taken up again by the Conservation Commission at its January 22 meeting (6:30pm, City Hall Hearing Room, 210 Main Street, 2nd floor, enter via back door), immediately followed by a hearing before the Planning Board (8:00pm, City Council Chambers, 212 Main Street).

Selected highlights from the discussion of the EBD project (The David Ruggles Center and live-work space. The rear building is proposed to encroach to within 12 feet of a wetland):

0:03:50-0:04:16… Jim Harrity: “…the structure is outside of the 10-foot buffer and I believe that…Northampton allows up to 10 feet in the SI [Special Industrial] zoning district.”

0:13:21… Commissioner: “We’ve had serious problems with grass areas or even the beginnings of grass areas on wetland boundaries… They just don’t tend to be respected by the people who live near or around them… My preference would be for basically to allow that [buffer strip] to naturally vegetate.”

0:14:46… Commissioner: “The 10-foot [buffer] is the minimum but obviously the wetlands are being affected by building within 100 feet, which is the jurisdictional limit… in allowing the building, the new structure, there’s got to be an improvement for…the wetlands…”

0:15:43… Commissioner: “The other dimension of that no-disturb zone is that all work has to be on the upland side as well, not just all building… That’s within two feet of the edge…whatever you do is going to be…pretty difficult to not encroach.”

0:16:38… Commissioner: “To allow you to come to 10 feet, we want to see some improvement. Otherwise, why would we allow it?”

0:20:18… Bruce Young: “The Wetlands Ordinance doesn’t allow for discretion as to what happens in that 10-foot. It says that that’s a no-disturb, so that trees can’t be cut, lawn can’t be mowed, and the Commission really has no say over whether yes or no it can happen.”

0:27:45… Commissioner: “When you look at any building, somewhere, someone puts their bike…they put their trash cans back there. They let their dog out, whatever, cats out. You got a boat you want to store, it sits back behind… You can’t have an egress and not have an access way…”

0:28:30… Speaker for EBD: “The condominium documents will specify that there can be…none of the activities and occurences that you’ve just described… The association that will be formed once this thing gets built out, they will defend those conditions. As I said, the people that are going to be moving here will be people who appreciate the wetlands and all that it provides, and there will be none of the bad activities…”

0:28:58… Commissioner: “But how do you know? …There isn’t a lot of flexibility here…”

0:33:12… Commissioner: “…we have real concerns about how close this building is to that edge.”

0:38:03… Commissioner: “I think what you’re hearing from a lot of the commissioners who have seen this is that if residents do…go back into that area inside the 10-foot buffer, if they do cut, then it’s going to become an enforcement action, with, you know, fines of $300 a day continuing every day $300… What we’re all expressing is that having seen the best of intentions go awry, after projects have been built right on top…obviously when you build right on top of the buffer zone, you have mistakes carry into the buffer zone, where people leave stuff outside of the back of the building, or maybe a worker decides that he needs to get better access, and cuts some brush away, those mistakes then are violating the Wetlands Ordinance.”

0:47:18… Commissioner: “The point is…that practically speaking they [the residents] are going to be walking in this no-disturb zone, they have to. And, it may not be this year, it may not be next year, but it will be 15 years from now or 20 years from now.”

0:50:12… Bruce Young: “I guess I’d caution you [EBD] to interpret the ordinance…the ordinance states that the Commission may allow work up to 10 feet with certain waivers that improve the wetland…”

0:50:30… Commissioner: “It’s not that 10 feet is the intended limit. It’s the extreme…”

0:50:29… Commissioner: “I would support the 5-foot buffer [creating a total of 15 feet between the rear building and the wetland] along the portion of the building where there will be egress and then 3 feet…as it turns and heads up the slope, just to allow for a minimum distance for maintenance and also for construction.”

The hearing for this project was continued to January 22.

1:02:37-1:32:53… Smith College hearing

1:37:42-1:47:23… Tofino Associates (Kohl Construction) hearing

See also:

The David Ruggles Center

Conservation Commission Pushes Back on Kohl Condo Proposal at December 11 Hearing

Just Released: Planner’s Guide to Wetland Buffers for Local Governments (emphasis added)
[Environmental Law Institute:] 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…

Hyla Ecological Services Analyzes the Proposed Wetlands Ordinance
…of particular significance are the results of a field evaluation study
of wetland buffer effectiveness in the Puget Sound area of Washington
State conducted [by] Sarah Spear Cooke. These 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).

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.

Mike Kirby: “The Meadowbrook Chronicles Part One”
The Meadowbrook story has many
important facets. Of particular interest to us are the consequences
that can follow from building homes near wetlands…

The developers built 255 units
of affordable apartments there. They crammed them in everywhere they
could, pushing them up into the bluffs, and close to the creek and
wetlands. No backyards to speak of. One third of the buildings were
built within 50 feet of the wetlands, 63% of the buildings are within
the customary 100 feet of wetlands.

None of the buildings have
cellars under their apartments. If they have cellars, there are people
living in them. The cellar floors in the basement apartments in
Buildings #4 and #2 are lower than the surrounding swamp. Some slabs
have cracks in them. People have been flooded out. No moisture-proof
barriers between the surrounding earth and the foundations. Moisture
and mold percolate up into people’s apartments via the chases that hold
utilities. If you wonder why low-income children are afflicted with a
whole host of respiratory diseases, you have to look no further than
the children of the floor level and basement apartments of Meadowbrook.
And many of the buildings have forest on one or two sides.