Northampton, MA, Citizens Campaign to Protect Their Urban Wetlands, Prevent Flooding

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Citizens of Northampton, MA, are campaigning to preserve the buffer zones around the city's urban wetlands from development. Northampton has a proud tradition of environmental stewardship and sustainable growth, but on October 4, Northampton's City Council plans to vote on an ordinance that would slash the no-build zone around wetlands to as little as 10 feet in many districts. The North Street Neighborhood Association this week is mailing 16,978 postcards to virtually all the registered voters of Northampton. The postcards call for maintaining 50-foot no-build buffers, the general standard to this point, to mitigate flooding, prevent water pollution, and keep neighborhoods green and cool.

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This loss of habitat and natural flood buffering areas is Northampton's most serious environmental problem.

On October 4, Northampton's City Council plans to vote on an ordinance that would slash the no-build zone around wetlands to as little as 10 feet in many districts. Up to this point, 50 feet has been the general standard, with limited exceptions. Citizens are concerned that the new rules will increase the risk of urban flooding and water pollution, and decrease the attractiveness of in-town living.

A review of the municipal wetlands regulations posted by the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions indicates that authorizing building as close as 10 feet to wetlands is rare among Massachusetts communities. This permissive stance is at odds with a city that otherwise values environmental protection. In 2001, the Northampton City Council voted for the city to join the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign, a project of the International Council on Local Environmental Initiatives. In 2005, Northampton received a "Tree City U.S.A. Designation". The current draft of Northampton's Sustainability Plan, initiated by the city in 2005, affirms Northampton's commitment to "Leadership in the advancement of sustainable practices that manage land use for long-term benefits ... and improve our impact on the environment."

The proposed new wetlands rules have been before the city for about two years, yet those who stand to lose the most from this ordinance have not been well heard. These are ordinary citizens who reside in the more densely populated area of Wards 1-4, plus parts of Ward 5. These zones -- about 15% of Northampton's land area -- contain a disproportionately large percentage of Northampton's homes.

Wetlands are a key component of Northampton's natural drainage systems. The extensive flood damage Northampton suffered under Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999 showed that the city's stormwater management systems are stretched even under its current wetlands policy. The proposed ordinance threatens to dramatically ratchet up the pressure on many of Northampton's in-town wetlands.

Hyla Ecological Services of Concord, MA, recently evaluated the likely impact of relaxing Northampton's wetlands buffer zone regulations. Hyla reports:

"Buffers of less than 50 feet in width are generally ineffective in protecting wetlands. Buffers larger than 50 feet are necessary to protect wetlands from an influx of sediment and nutrients, to protect wetlands from direct human disturbance, to protect sensitive wildlife species from adverse impacts, and to protect wetlands from the adverse effects of changes in quantity of water entering the wetland... (Castelle et al., 'Wetland Buffers: Use and Effectiveness', 1992)

"Buffer function was found to be directly related to the width of the buffer. Ninety-five percent of buffers smaller than 50 feet suffered a direct human impact within the buffer, while only 35% of buffers wider than 50 feet suffered direct human impact. Human impacts to the buffer zone resulted in increased impact on the wetland by noise, physical disturbance of foraging and nesting areas, and dumping refuse and yard waste. Overall, large buffers reduced the degree of changes in water quality, sediment load, and the quantity of water entering the adjacent wetland." (Castelle et al., 1992)

To alert citizens to act, the North Street Neighborhood Association this week is mailing 16,978 postcards to virtually all of the city's registered voters. The association is composed of local citizens concerned for the environment and the quality of in-town living. The postcard asks voters to call on their City Councilors to stand up for urban greenspace and prevent flooding. The text of the postcard is published at NorthAssoc.org.

The proposed ordinance aims to encourage "infill development", preserving open space outside of already built-up areas. However, citizens cannot be expected to want to move into the city's denser areas if the long-term safety and attractiveness of these areas are in doubt. When the green buffers around urban wetlands are sacrificed to development, citizens can expect their neighborhoods to become hotter, more polluted and more flood-prone. Encroaching on wetlands is not a sustainable path to growth. (Sources: EPA: Heat Island Effect; EPA: Wetlands: Protecting Life and Property from Flooding; Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation)

Adding substantial amounts of impervious surface within 50 feet of wetlands goes against Northampton's Flood Mitigation Plan, which was approved by the City Council in 2004. In a table of Existing Mitigation Strategies, the plan cites as one "effective" strategy a "100 foot buffer around wetlands and the wetland resource area itself ..." One of the "Priority Actions" recommended by the plan is to "Consistently enforce the Wetlands Protection Act to maintain the integrity of the 200' riverfront area, wetlands and wetland buffer areas."

The proposed new rules also go against Northampton's Open Space Plan, approved by the City Council in 2005. Referring to the impact of development in local wildlife habitats, the plan states, "This loss of habitat and natural flood buffering areas is Northampton's most serious environmental problem."

The association calls on Northampton's City Council to insist on a minimum 50-foot no-disturbance buffer around all our city's wetlands. At the very least, residential districts need more than the meager flood protection afforded by 10-foot buffers. Springfield requires 50 feet, as do many other Massachusetts communities. Northampton deserves no less.

Learn more about how wetlands and their buffer zones benefit communities at the North Street Neighborhood Association website, NorthAssoc.org.

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