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Wetlands public hearing turns into big box discussion

GREENFIELD — Though a Town Council committee’s public hearing was supposed to be about recently proposed changes to the town’s wetlands law this week, it turned into a conversation about the big box development on French King Highway.

Many of the more than 30 people in attendance of the Appointments and Ordinances Committee meeting Wednesday night seemed to want to talk about the Conservation Commission’s rewrite of the town’s wetlands ordinance in the context of that development, instead of how the new law, if passed, would affect the town in general.

Verne Sund of Barton Road said he trusts the commission, which is made up of “wetlands people,” to make the right decisions and write a good wetlands law.

“The town doesn’t want to interfere with people building houses or other things on private property,” he said.

Sund also said that the law has to be flexible enough to allow development so that taxpayers can be relieved of some of the tax burden.

Joseph Graveline, who lives in Northfield and works in Greenfield, said his biggest concern about the commission’s rewrite is that it left a controversial waiver that allows the commission to relax local enhancements to the state wetlands law.

When used, the waiver — which has been a sticking point especially for opponents of the big box development approved for French King Highway — allows some flexibility in the commission’s decision-making in terms of “specifically identified and requested procedures, design specifications, performance standards or other requirements set forth in its regulations ...”

The waiver was approved by the council in 2008, in the midst of the commission’s review of the big box project. Opponents at that time felt the waiver was the town’s way of removing obstacles for the developer so that the commission could, and would, approve the project, but that waiver was never used in its decision of the big box project.

Former councilor, and this year’s at-large challenger, Isaac Mass said Wednesday night that he was on the council when it approved the waiver and for him, at least, it was about “overriding public interest.”

Mass said the waiver is supposed to allow work on contaminated sites, like the former Greenfield Tap & Die site on Deerfield and Meridian streets, which otherwise might not be allowed under town wetlands rules.

“We felt it would behoove the town to have the waiver to give the commission flexibility when it comes to environmental cleanups, for instance,” he said.

Mass said although the waiver ended up not having to be used in the building of the new high school, there was a good possibility, because it is so wet there, that it could have been.

“I can think of a lot of other instances where we might need it in the future,” he said.

Mass also reminded people that the waiver allows the commission to waive local rules only, not anything in the state’s Wetlands Protection Act.

Another point of contention for several people at the meeting was the commission’s stance on replication of wetlands. Some said they don’t like the idea of replication because according to statistics, about 80 percent fail.

Commission Chairman Alex Haro said while that is true, the commission decided it would like some leeway in approving replication — the process must be overseen by scientists and can be very costly — because there are projects in which replication would make sense and is sometimes the only option to allow a project, large or small.

Haro said the commission could not go beyond what the state requires for a replication anyway.

Replication was never used in the French King big box project, either. The area now known as Wetland 4 was a restoration, not a replication.

Albert Norman, the Greenfield anti-big box development consultant who calls himself a “sprawl-buster” and currently represents seven abutters who are suing the town over the big box project approved for French King Highway, quietly called to Appointments and Ordinances Chairman David Singer and said “no” while shaking his head when Teresa Conti talked about how the less wealthy residents in town need a big box store. He stood up a few minutes later to make his comments about the commission’s rewrite.

Norman, who has said he would like to see the waiver removed from the town wetlands law and 2001 wording about replication left in so that replication is the “very last resort” and almost impossible to approve, said Wednesday that he has “lived through (a wetlands) issue since 2006.”

“The Con Com told me Wetland 4 was not a wetland,” he said. “It was a man-made resource.”

Norman submitted a diagram of the French King property, showing the location of Wetland 4.

“The state didn’t allow Wetland 4 to be paved over like the developer wanted to do,” he said. “The developer tried to get around the ordinance.”

Norman said he would rather the town not change the current wetlands law than approve the commission’s rewrite, which he believes is weaker than the current one. He said he is not trying to stop development, but rather protect the town’s wetlands.

Norman, who was allowed to present his own suggestions for a rewrite at a Feb. 10 Appointments and Ordinances meeting, again urged adoption of his suggestions, which include removing the waiver, allowing replication only as a last resort and contacting abutters of abutters, to name a few.

Conservation Commission member John Blasiak said the commission’s rewrite is a good one.

“We have to be careful what we do,” said Blasiak. “You all have specific things you want done or not want done. That’s not the world of the Conservation Commission.”

Blasiak said the commission looks at all types of projects every year and some of the smaller ones in people’s backyards would not be able to be built if not for the waiver or replication, which have been used in several of those instances.

“Taking those away would block many people’s projects,” said Blasiak. “(The commission) needs a certain amount of flexibility.”

Blasiak said without flexibility there could be issues with things such as the Green River annual cleanup or with a farm or educational organization building an educational pathway.

“There could end up being a whole lot of unintended consequences that aren’t good for the town,” he said.

Several who attended the meeting said they’d just like to see a little more clarity about the criteria the commission would follow when using replication or the waiver.

In the end, Haro said town councilors will ultimately have to decide how the town wants to protect its wetland resources and what level of protection it wants to provide.

He said the commission’s rewrite is modeled after the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commission’s model ordinance.

“We used it as a guide,” said Haro. “There are many similarities. We used what we thought was specific for Greenfield.”

Haro said he believes the commission’s rewrite is a good, strong one.

When Singer closed the public hearing about 90 minutes after it began, he told people they were welcome to come to the committee’s next meeting, but there will not be public comment. He said the committee will accept written comment for the next few weeks.

Singer said he will announce the date and time of that meeting, at which the committee will discuss the commission’s rewrite, public comment, and any questions the commission answers between now and then, as soon as possible.

You can reach Anita Fritz at: afritz@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 280

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