The Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act (WPA), General Law Ch. 131 Sec. 40, prohibits any filling, excavation or other alterations of land surface, water levels, or vegetation in wetland resource areas, regardless of ownership, without a permit from the local Conservation Commission.
The Palmer Wetlands Protection Ordinance (Chapter 168) supplements the WPA by including certain areas and activities not covered in the state law, by providing for application and consultant fees, and by allowing local enforcement.
What areas are protected?
We may typically think of wetlands as marshes filled with cattails, but legally the term "wetland" or "wetland resource area" also includes bogs, wet meadows, wooded swamps, vernal pools, streams, rivers, ponds, floodplains, and certain areas adjoining these. The abundance of wetland vegetation and the character of the soil define vegetated wetlands.
A protected 200-foot "riverfront" area extends from each bank of every river and stream having a year-round flow. Other stream banks, as well as ponds, vegetated wetlands, and vernal pools, have a 100-foot buffer area within the jurisdiction of the wetland protection laws. Technical definitions are found in the state WPA, the town Ordinance, and their regulations.
Why are wetlands important?
Over half of this country's original wetland area has been lost to agricultural and urban development, and the cost of this loss in degraded water quality, increased storm damage and flooding, and depleted fish and wildlife populations has been well documented. Left in their natural state, wetlands provide many free services to the community. Low areas provide floodways to contain storm waters and act as buffers to prevent storm damage to nearby roads and buildings. These functions minimize the need for extensive engineering systems and flood walls. Freshwater wetlands provide temporary storage of flood waters, wildlife habitat, pollution traps, and in some cases, recharge ground water aquifers.
Directly or indirectly, wetlands are often sources of public or private water supply, as they are in Palmer. In addition, a wetland can purify the water it receives before passing it on. Wetlands serve as natural settling ponds whose soils and vegetation trap sediments and bind pollutants, and in some cases chemically break pollutants down into non-toxic compounds. For example, the sediments under marsh vegetation absorb chlorinated hydrocarbons and heavy metals such as lead, copper and iron. Wetland plants take up nitrogen and phosphorous compounds that could otherwise lead to nuisance plant growth in fresh and coastal waters, and release them less harmfully in the winter.
Wetlands and the surrounding buffer zones are valuable to wildlife for food, nesting area, and protective cover. Isolated seasonally flooded areas, called vernal pools, are particularly valuable for certain amphibians that can breed nowhere else and need nearby wooded terrain to complete their live cycles.
Banks, protected under the state WPA and town Ordinance, serve as buffers for landowners against storm damage. Vegetated banks bind the soil, preventing erosion caused by waves or surface water flow. Banks and stream beds offer microhabitats for numerous small aquatic animals and invertebrates.
Lands subject to flooding are protected because they store water during storms and release it gradually later. Alterations of land that reduce this storage capacity will increase the likelihood of flash floods downstream. Many examples of houses flooded or lost are caused by the cumulative effect of filling floodplains over the years. Floodplains are often valuable to wildlife, too, both as sources of food and for access to water.
What activities are prohibited in wetland resources, and what is permitted?
Under the WPA and Ordinance, no one may remove, fill, dredge, build upon, or alter any vegetated wetland, floodplain, bank, land under a water body, land within 100 feet of a wetland, or land within 200 feet of a perennial stream or river, without a permit from the Commission.
The values protected by the WPA include flood control, prevention of storm damage, prevention of pollution, protection of water supplies, groundwater, erosion control, fisheries, wildlife, and recreation.
The term "alter" includes destruction of vegetation, changes in drainage characteristics or flow patterns, changing of water quality or characteristics, dumping, and placing of any kind of structure. Projects that can be implemented without harming the wetland values will be issued a permit with conditions sufficient to guarantee the protection of those values.
Performance standards in the Regulations can guide you or your consultant in planning and designing projects in wetland resource areas so that they can be readily approved by the Commission. Projects which cannot meet the standards, and applications with insufficient information, will be denied.
How can we identify resource areas and their boundaries?
Some wetlands, such as streams, ponds, bogs, and cattail marshes are easily recognizable. Identifying other wetland areas can be more difficult and might require the services of a botanist or ecologist. The Conservation Agent and the Commissioners can assist you in identifying areas of wetlands on or near your property.
If your plans include work within the jurisdiction of the wetlands laws, the wetlands must be delineated and mapped; a number of engineering, surveying, and wetlands consulting firms provide these services for a fee. (Homeowners with small projects in buffer zones and riverfront areas often can obtain approval without professional assistance.)
Floodplain maps issued by the National Flood Insurance Program show the
floodplains along some rivers and streams. If your property lies near a stream or a pond, or in a low-lying area, part of it could be flood prone.
What must I do if I'm planning work in or near a wetland?
If your project would, in the judgment of the Commission, impact wetland resource areas, you must file a formal application (Notice of Intent), notify abutters and near neighbors, and present your proposal at a public hearing, usually held within 21 days of filing. Once the hearing is closed, the Commission must issue its decision (an Order of Conditions, or possibly a denial) within another 21 days. Under the WPA, you may appeal the Order of Conditions within 10 days. Abutters, ten residents of the community, or the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) can also appeal within those 10 days. Appeal is first to the regional office of the DEP, which will issue a Superseding Order of Conditions. Further appeals are possible, to the central office of the DEP and then to Superior Court.
How do zoning bylaws help to protect wetlands?
What are the penalties for violating the wetlands protection laws?
How can I get more information?