Waiver likely to be dropped from wetland rules

GREENFIELD — It looks like the town is about to restore more rigid protections against development near wetlands.

In 2007, the town allowed the Conservation Commission to relax local wetland rules as it saw fit, but that waiver rule may be taken out of an updated version of the wetlands ordinance, which the commission has been revising for the past two years.

During the commission’s review of the big box project on French King Highway, former Mayor Christine Forgey and Marlene Morrocco, her economic development director, asked that the waiver rule be adopted.

The change allowed the commission to waive “specifically identified and requested procedures, design specifications, performance standards or other requirements set forth in its regulations ...”

Opponents of the big box project felt it was the town’s way of removing obstacles for the developer so that the Conservation Commission could, and would, approve the project. The opponents fought against the waiver to no avail, because Town Council eventually voted to include it in the town’s local conservation rules.

Today’s Town Council is now asking that the waiver be removed before the council votes on the revisions.

“If the effect of this change protects the integrity of our wetlands, then I support Town Council’s effort,” said Albert Norman, who is known nationally as a sprawlbuster consultant against Walmart and other big box developments, and who has represented and rallied for seven abutters of the proposed project for the past half-dozen years. “Anything that pushes developers off of wetlands is good. Those types of changes will be helpful.”

Conservation Commission Chairman Alex Haro said the commission will finish writing the new ordinance by removing the waiver as requested and will then present the ordinance to Town Council for review and approval.

He said the commission last updated its bylaws in 2001, so it was time.

“It took us two-plus years,” he said. “We made lots of changes, basically rewriting the ordinance from scratch.”

Haro said many of the changes were modeled after the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions rules.

Haro said the new wetlands ordinance will “basically provide the same level of protection to the town’s wetlands,” but clarifies, organizes and provides good definitions, which will lead, he hopes, to a more agreed upon interpretation of the rules.

Haro said the waiver was a double-edged sword because it allowed options for the commission to be more flexible in its decisions, but could easily work against the town if a commission wanted to abuse it.

He said the waiver allows a developer to request permission to work in a “no disturb” zone.

“If a Conservation Commission allowed the waiver to be used and wasn’t on its toes, a decision could end up violating the state Wetlands Protection Act and then there could be big problems,” he said.

Haro said he believes the waiver weakened the town’s ordinance.

“It really isn’t a big deal to take it out,” said Haro.

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