Alexandra Dawson: “Standing tall for our wetlands”

Alexandra Dawson has an excellent column in today’s Gazette. Here is an excerpt:

…in the long run, nearby development [to wetlands] can result in grass clippings, raked leaves and dog droppings – or worse – getting pushed over the line. And then the wetland loses a lot of its resource value.

The Northampton City Council some years ago greatly reduced the buffer area around wetlands in the developed areas of the city. Strictly speaking, they did not create a buffer but a do-not-disturb area comprising the wetlands and a 10-to-35-foot buffer area around the wetland. Recently, the council decided to allow alteration of this area if the work would improve the wetland and mitigate other damage on the lot.

Folks, at the risk of sounding paranoid, I urge caution in following this example. It permits alteration of the wetland itself, in the name of improvement. In all my years of environmental work I have come to believe that wetlands, like natural forests, do not need improvement…

Gazette subscribers may read the full column here

See also:

Video: A Close Look at the Presentation of the Wetlands Ordinance to City Council on 9/20/07 
The North Street Neighborhood Association has these concerns about the new Wetlands Ordinance:

  • Scientific studies suggest that buffer zones of less than 50 feet are generally ineffective at protecting wetlands

  • Urban wetlands and their buffers are key for flood control and pollution control, even though they may be mediocre natural habitats

  • While it’s true that the most permissive 10- and 35-foot buffer zones affect only about 15% of the land area of Northampton, this area contains a much greater proportion of Northampton’s population and property at risk. For example, over 38% of the population lives within one mile of the center of downtown (see table)

  • Unwise encroachment in the past does not justify more unwise encroachment today. Impacts accumulate

  • Some homes near wetlands (Meadowbrook Apartments, Winslow, Nutting and Elm Streets) are suffering from water intrusion, yet the Conservation Commission and the Planning Board have not yet analyzed these problems to prevent a repetition of mistakes

  • Several failing stormwater mitigation schemes (such as those at Northampton High School, Carlon Drive and Bridge Street School) need analysis

  • Bruce Young recently noted that compliance with wetlands protection agreements has been a big problem in Northampton. Conservation Commissioner Downey Meyer spoke to the crux of the matter at the hearing of January 22 (commenting on a prior version of Kohl’s proposal with 25 units):
    …it’s not a question of our intentions but…imagine the worst, the Holmesian ‘bad man’…you have to draft rules for the worst actor, for the least responsive landowner, especially if they’re supposed to protect a resource that is supposed to last in perpetuity… I think that…space prevents incursion.
In consultation with HYLA Ecological Services, we recommend these changes to the Wetlands Ordinance in zoning districts URB and URC:

  • No disturbance closer than 25 feet

  • No more than 10%-15% of that portion of the buffer zone that’s 25-50 feet from a wetland should be covered with impervious surface of any kind

  • No structures closer than 50 feet EXCEPT

  • At the discretion of the Conservation Commission, the landowner may build a structure in the portion of the buffer zone that’s 25-50 feet from a wetland, provided the structure covers no more than 10% of that portion of the buffer zone
Other exceptions:

  • Building on existing impervious surfaces or modifying (without enlarging footprint of) existing structures in the buffer zone

  • Emergency projects

  • Exception for some class of limited projects – most notably driveways

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

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.

Japanese Knotweed and Multiflora Rose: Is Herbicide the Answer?
[Japanese knotweed:] Once established, F. japonica is very difficult to eradicate and removal efforts may have further adverse impacts on the soil or other plants…

[Multiflora rose:] Where plants have become well established, a huge seed bank develops that can continue to produce seedlings for at least twenty years after removal of mature plants…

Based on the longevity of the seed bank, eradication might be a 20-year project or more, far longer than the year or two (or even 10) contemplated in Kohl’s latest written proposal. It seems unreasonable and unrealistic to ask a developer and the Conservation Commission to implement and monitor such a lengthy program, especially when non-compliance with wetlands agreements has proven to be a widespread problem in Northampton.

In contrast to a relatively short program of toxic herbicides–extraordinary or not–the long-term, low-risk, environmentally gentle solution to these invasive species appears to be bringing the ecology back into balance, allowing and in some cases encouraging the natural predators of knotweed and multiflora rose to feast on their abundance. Additionally, preserving mature trees will help control knotweed.

Gazette Reports on January 22 Kohl Condo Hearings; Pictures of the Latest Proposal; Conservation Staff Report; HYLA Critique 
[Dr. Bryan Windmiller:] …the applicant proposes to mitigate the impacts of buffer zone disturbance by disturbing even more area of inner buffer zone and forested wetland itself.  This mitigation effort will, in fact, only worsen the impacts to the wetlands bordering Millyard Brook…

The intended use of herbicides by the applicant to control Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) will moreover result in the pollution of the wetland with herbicides and their toxic surfactant agents.  The commonly used herbicide glyphosate (Rodeo and Roundup) has been shown to be highly toxic to amphibians, for example, in numerous papers by Rick Relyea and colleagues (see summary at: Japanese knotweed and multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) are furthermore difficult to eradicate, even with herbicides. To do so will require significant doses of herbicide applied many times.

In the end, such schemes are likely only to result in further degradation of the wetland system.  How long will the applicant continue to remove exotic species and replace dead shrubs and trees that are planted in the mitigation areas?  Three years?  Five?  Ten?