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Wetlands rules apply to many projects

Flexibility needed in weighing impacts from different plans

GREENFIELD — Backyard projects, as well as big box developments, could end up facing additional hurdles in the future depending on what type of updated wetlands laws the Town Council eventually passes.

As the date of a public hearing to discuss proposed changes to the town’s wetlands ordinance approaches, some town officials and residents are asking how proposed changes to the current law might affect projects, large and small, throughout town.

According to the Conservation Commission chairman, his panel’s rewrite of the current wetlands ordinance more clearly defines the local laws, but also continues to give the commission a little wiggle room in its decision making.

Commission Chairman Alex Haro said the proposed ordinance makes the local law clearer to a resident or business, for instance, who may need a special permit to start a project because it is being built near a wetland.

Haro said the commission’s rewrite will, for the most part, simply give residents and contractors, as well as commissioners, a better understanding of what is expected from the time a project begins until construction is complete.

Greenfield’s Director of Planning and Development Eric Twarog said if someone wants to stop certain types of development, it should be done through one of the town’s land-use boards or zoning, not through a wetlands law.

“As far as a wetlands ordinance goes, you’re never going to cover everything and you have to have some flexibility or nothing will ever get done,” said Eugene Benson, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions. “A town has to have trust in its conservation commission. It is there to protect the wetlands.”

On March 26, the Town Council’s Appointments and Ordinances Committee will hold a public hearing at 6:30 p.m. at 114 Main St. to allow public input on the draft ordinance.

Precinct 5 Councilor and committee Chairman David Singer said the committee will present the commission’s rewrite for public comment.

Singer said he wants to make that clear because on Feb. 10, Appointments and Ordinances allowed Albert Norman of Greenfield to present his own version of the rewrite. Norman is a nationally known anti-big box development consultant who calls himself a “sprawl-buster” and currently represents seven abutters who are suing the town over a big box project it approved for French King Highway. Norman, who has routinely invoked wetlands laws in opposing developments, deleted some of the commission’s language and replaced it with his own.

Singer said Norman’s version will not be presented at the public hearing unless Norman speaks.

Still, some officials are concerned that if even just some of Norman’s rewrites are accepted by the council, the law would then go too far and could end up blocking, or at least restricting, all types of projects.

For instance, Norman suggests that the town remove a waiver added to the wetlands law in 2008 that allows the commission some leeway when making a decision.

While Norman claims that the waiver was added by the former council and former Mayor Christine Forgey to help along a big box project on French King Highway, others have said it was added to give the commission more discretion with any project it might feel deserves a permit but doesn’t meet certain standards.

Maureen Pollock, the town’s conservation agent, said a local community garden group currently wants to build a trail system on its property, and part of that system would go into a wetland. She said without the waiver, that project would most likely be denied, because the wooden footbridge being proposed over the wetland on the educational walkway would not be allowed.

Pollock said there would also be times that, according to Norman’s rewrite, homeowners would find themselves having problems because of a prolonged process to install a septic system or porch, for instance, if the council were to pass the suggestion he made about changing the wait time between the end of public comment period and when the commission can render a decision from 21 days to 90 days.

She and a representative from the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions said that change may not be able to be made legally anyway, because the 21-day rule is controlled by state law and if the town were to change it to 90 days, it could open the door to appeals.

Benson said that towns may write their own wetlands bylaws or ordinances, but those laws must be as strict or stricter than the state’s wetlands laws.

Haro said the commission’s rewrite was based on an MACC model wetlands law.

Benson said the MACC model was written with concern for conservation and protection of wetlands. He said like any law, it has its faults, but is written with good intentions.

He said more than half of the state’s cities and towns have wetlands bylaws or ordinances that are modeled after MACC’s, and he said he believes the majority have included the same waiver Greenfield included six years ago.

“We modeled ours by balancing the rights of people and the interests in wetlands,” said Benson.

“Each community’s laws are about the choices and values of that community,” said Benson.

Pollock agreed, but said Norman’s version seems to tie the commission’s hands and could affect many future projects.

For instance, Norman suggests that abutters of abutters be contacted when a project is going before the commission.

That could open the door for even more neighbors of a project to have standing for an appeal, town officials have said.

Also, one of Norman’s rewrites would not allow replication of a wetland, except under the most extreme conditions, while the state, Greenfield, and the MACC model all allow replication under certain conditions.

Pollock said that some of the language in Norman’s rewrite is vague and could be left open to interpretation.

“Some of these issues could come back to create a nuisance for homeowners who are trying to build a porch or install a septic system,” said Pollock. “Those are not the types of applications we want to see prolonged.”

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