City Council Holds Hearing Regarding Wetlands Ordinance and Climate Change Adaptation

The City Council Committee on Government Operations held a hearing on March 18 regarding an ordinance protecting local wetlands and promoting climate change adaptation in the city. The councilors as well as the panel members and members of the public shared their thoughts and ideas around the topic, and the consensus was that everyone wants to make sure the ordinance is written carefully and thoughtfully to best suit the needs of the City of Boston.

“We are eager to continue the conversation,” docket sponsor Michelle Wu said. “It has been a long one from my office’s perspective. We are in agreement that Boston is very vulnerable from a climate perspective…we are running out of time to take action.” Wu said that at last check,  Boston is one of only three coastal cities in Massachusetts without an ordinance.

She said that the City Council needs to use the “authority given to us by state law to make sure we’re addressing concerns.” There is a draft ordinance, but the City Council has yet to see it, Wu said, but she wants to make sure they go about this process from a collaborative point of view. “I think we are hoping that this set of proposed language is a good starting point and that we will get feedback on versions that others have been working on,” Wu said.

Environment Commissioner Carl Spector said that the Conservation Commission held an informational meeting, and strongly supports the development of a local ordinance, but “it’s important to get the details right.” He said that the current proposal “introduces some changes not related to the effects of climate change,” as well as some that are, such as foreseeable rises in sea level, etc. over a 500-year flood plane and establishes special transition zones. Spector said that the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) “requires that all new projects are evaluated relative to the extent of the flood plane related to 40-year sea rise,” he said.

Richard McGuinness, Deputy Director for Climate Change and Environmental Planning at the BPDA, said that the draft wetlands ordinance is “a good start, but requires some revisions.” He said that there are over 5,000 acres of land fill in Boston. “Our shore line has been altered; it needs to be reflected in any promulgated regulations,” he said. He added that he was “pleased to see” a reference to understanding the public value of wetlands resources in the draft ordinance, but the 25 foot no-disturbance zone would limit flood barriers and the ability to build flood barriers. “We see more of these types of elections to protect the city from flooding,” he said, and the ordinance as written would prevent them from being built.

Attorney Nathaniel Stevens said that the ordinance “would give the city greater permitting control about what happens in these wetland resource areas than they currently have.”

Pamela Harvey, Vice President for Advocacy at the Massachusetts Association of Conservation  Commissions, talked about a provision in the ordinance that would specifically allow flood protection projects. “Requirements will be specified by the commission’s regulations and applicants will hear about them at the time of the project review so they can be taken into account,” she said, adding that maps can be helpful with clarity in getting permits issued.

Julie Wood of the Charles River Watershed Association said that she is in support of the ordinance. “The ordinance is a good first step by codifying this into wetlands permitting processes,” she said. “This action was specifically recommended by the Climate Ready Boston process, a robust and inclusive process that vetted and prioritized ideas for helping the city thrive in the non-steady state of a changing climate.”

She said that preserving the resources we have and keeping those areas healthy is a step in protecting the city from flooding, reduce pollution, recharge groundwater supplies, etc. She said that the city should consider transitioning developed areas into wetlands.

Michael Giaimo, a partner with the law firm Robinson + Cole, said that his firm was asked to review the ordinance from the standpoint of how it affects property development and owners in the city. Giaimo said that the ordinance would “significantly increase the amount of riparian area subject to review,” and would also regulate a riverfront area that is 200 feet wide. This is eight times the current width, Giaimo said. “This has the potential effect of subjecting significantly more land and significantly more development to Conservation Commission review,” he said. “Before adopting a provision like this, the city should know how much additional land in the city would be subject to review on this basis and what that would mean for the development potential and the value of that land.”

“I would encourage the council as well as the administration to take the time necessary to make sure this comes out well,” Tom O’Brien of the HYM Investment Group said. He said that he senses an “undercurrent of a need for the administration and the council to get on the same page” regarding this ordinance. “We do agree that an ordinance is needed in Boston so we’re certainly open to that,” he continued, but suggested that Boston not be compared to other communities that have already enacted ordinances, as “there’s a lot of complication that has to be sorted out in Boston,” he said.

Frank O’Brien of the Allandale Coalition said that the organization is in support. “This is just a start of a problem solving issue resolution process and we all look forward to participating in that,” he said. He said that the Conservation Commission should be “an equal partner” with the BPDA and other departments.

Councilor Michael Flaherty said that this matter will probably move to a working session, and Michelle Wu said she’s “looking forward to continued conversations” on this topic. “It seems like there are some very strong commonalities here from everyone who spoke and so eager to work with the city to get this right in a collaborative way that is both urgent but also focused on getting the details correct as well,” Wu said.

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