Six towns in Franklin, Hampshire counties seek regional conservation agent

Sedimentation of wetlands near the West Branch of the Mill River in Williamsburg in 2018.

Sedimentation of wetlands near the West Branch of the Mill River in Williamsburg in 2018. FILE PHOTO


Staff Writer

Published: 03-06-2024 11:29 AM

Modified: 03-08-2024 9:11 PM

ASHFIELD — Six towns are pooling their resources to hire a paid conservation agent to serve their communities as the number of permit filings exceeds the capacity of their all-volunteer conservation commissions.

“Ashfield’s workload was sustainable because Ashfield had relatively fewer and more straightforward filings. But over the last five years … our filings have steadily increased in both number and complexity of the wetlands issues to the point where it is difficult for us to handle as volunteers,” Aaron Nelson, chair of the Ashfield Conservation Commission, wrote in an email.

All towns in Massachusetts use their conservation commissions to enforce the Wetlands Protection Act, a 1972 law that prohibits construction, excavation, or alterations on wetlands or waterfront areas.

Larger cities and towns often employ people to oversee applications, while smaller towns, like Ashfield, rely on volunteer labor.

The commissions’ tasks include site visits, reviewing applications, interpreting regulations and completing paperwork. A complex application might comprise dozens or even 100 pages or more with supporting material, making reviewing them and ensuring compliance with regulations a significant workload.

Nelson noted that the Ashfield Conservation Commission now receives double the filings it received five years ago. The increase is attributed to more homes being built in recent years, with many house sites located on wetlands due to the lack of available drier upland parcels. Additionally, severe weather such as flooding has made emergency road repair and culvert work, which require permits from the commission, more common.

“Without an agent, I think it’s likely that despite our best efforts, we would struggle to keep up with our filings. That means delays for folks, whether it’s a resident looking to add an addition to their house, or for the Highway Department trying to get a permit for a culvert replacement,” Nelson continued.

A full-time, paid position for this role in one small town would not have enough work, “but by working with towns with similar issues to share an agent, we can get the support we need at an affordable price,” Nelson wrote.

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As a result, Ashfield, Buckland, Goshen, Hawley, Whately and Williamsburg have joined forces intending to hire one agent for the six towns. Conway was initially involved in the discussions but has since withdrawn.

These six towns were selected because they are contiguous and fairly similar in size and finances, ensuring equality rather than one large town dominating the conversation. Over the past six months, there have been three joint meetings with representatives from the conservation commissions as well as town administrators to discuss the creation of the position.

Town officials hope to secure a state Efficiency and Regionalization grant, which aims to promote municipalities working together to share services. The towns have requested $108,396 that will account for employment costs (salary, health insurance, taxes, etc.) of $63,746, administrative costs of $2,750, and capital and equipment costs of $41,900. After the first year, the towns will begin covering the services, expected to cost about $70,000.

“The grant has not been awarded yet, but I am hopeful that we will receive all or most of the funding requested as we’ve come up with a way to really show how towns can come together to obtain services at an affordable price,” wrote Paul McLatchy III, Town Administrator.

If the grant application is successful, Ashfield would be responsible for employing the agent and administering all finances, with the other towns paying a portion of the total cost to the lead town. Most payment formulas discussed involve towns paying proportionally to their population (with Ashfield, Buckland and Whately paying around 20% each, Williamsburg around 25-30%, Goshen around 10% and Hawley around 5%).

If the grant is awarded, the towns will advertise for the position in April, with the role beginning July 1 for the new fiscal year.

“It’s been great working with the other commissions and towns, and their collaborative, problem-solving approach is one of the reasons I feel optimistic that a shared agent will be successful,” Nelson wrote.

Reach Bella Levavi at 413-930-4579 or