The Town of Shutesbury Select Board needs to support the Conservation Commission’s (ConCom) leadership in strengthening our town’s wetlands bylaw through improved regulations.
Our current wetlands bylaw (which was passed in 1987) is strong but could benefit from being updated to reflect new scientific understandings and changes in environmental law. Local wetlands bylaws are designed to be more protective than the state Wetlands Protection Act, which is the minimal protection standard. Several hundred towns and cities in the state have them. Our bylaw has more stringent restrictions than does the state law.
As a stop-gap between now and when a new bylaw can be developed the ConCom has been developing regulations that address the outdated aspects of the bylaw. The ConCom has the authority on its own to adopt regulations that spell out how the bylaw is administered. Writing good regulations is a best practice that ensures that decisions based on the bylaw can stand up. The ConCom announced several months ago that it was working on new regulations. Its plan was to draft the regulations, have Town Counsel review them, make them available to the public, and then hold a public hearing before making any decisions. Updating these regulations will protect our important wetlands and essential water supply when and if large solar projects are proposed.
The Select Board has decided to weigh in on the ConCom's efforts by introducing a legal opinion from an outside legal counsel that argues that the bylaw and regulations need to be updated and by instructing the Conservation Commission that the Select Board will not approve the use of Town Counsel to review a draft of the regulations.
It is highly unusual for a Select Board to be taking such an adversarial position unilaterally--without the advice of the ConCom which is tasked with the administration of the bylaw.
It is unclear what the motivation is behind this irregular move, but anyone observing town politics in the past two years can see that the Select Board has been consistently attacking the work of the ConCom, particularly when the ConCom has some jurisdiction over town projects. Unfortunately, an attack on one aspect of the ConCom's authority is an attack on all aspects of its authority, including the bylaw's jurisdiction.
The bylaw was approved by the Town of Shutesbury and still remains in effect. It reflects the will of the residents about the importance of the environment, wetlands, wildlife habitat, stormwater management, pollution control, and water resources.
The Select Board's actions are publicly undermining the ConCom's ability to apply the bylaw until such time as a new bylaw is adopted. While updating and revising the bylaw (which must be approved at a Town Meeting and then approved by the Attorney General, would be great, it is time-consuming and challenging. There is no guarantee that a new bylaw would be approved by the Town Meeting, especially after the public criticisms from the Select Board. At the very least, this process would take months, if not years, to accomplish.
We encourage you to let the Select Board know that that you support the ConCom’s efforts to strengthen the wetlands regulations now and that you want the them to uphold the current bylaw until a new one can be developed.
Please attend the Select Board meeting Tuesday at 5:00 p.m and make a brief comment during the public comment perios at 5:05. The issue of the wetlands bylaw is scheduled for discussion at 6:05. Your presence at the meeting will make an important difference.
Here are potential talking points:
We request adequate time in this meeting to accommodate public comments relating to this issue.
We expect the Select Board to follow appropriate and ethical protocols and follow the Conservation Commission’s lead on creating regulations that support the wetlands bylaw.
We ask the Select Board to refrain from any activities that interfere with the regulatory work that is within the purview of the ConCom
We expect that the Select Board include the public input into the development of regulations for the wetlands bylaw.
We request that the Select Board release funds so that the ConCom can hire their own legal counsel around this issue.
We expect the Select Board to recognize that the wetlands bylaw is a law and cannot be disregarded.
We recognize that the recent legal review of the bylaw does not conclude that the bylaw is unenforceable but rather that it would benefit from being updated.