Friday, February 9, 2007
ConsCom members walk a fine line working to preserve Carlisle's ambience
Carlisleans, like most of their fellow countrymen, do not like government agencies telling them what they can and cannot do with their property. Conversely, they do want these same entities to prevent neighbors and fellow citizens from doing things they consider deleterious to those same property values. This is the emotion-laden contradiction that the Conservation Commission (ConsCom) shares with other regulatory boards, particularly in a town as small as Carlisle.
Luckily for the seven volunteer incumbents, the commission's original powers and responsibilities as defined in the state's 1957 Conservation Commission Act and fleshed out in the bylaws of the Town of Carlisle, have enjoyed consistent popular support. The original state statute viewed the municipal bodies as local voices for the environmental health of their respective communities, charged with "promotion and development of natural resources and protection of watershed values." Then as now, they were entrusted with planning, acquiring and management of open space. The act stipulated that once conservation lands and water resources had been acquired in the name of the town, and duly turned over to the control of the Conservation Commission by the town legislative body, the board's responsibilities were summed up as follows: "to maintain, improve, protect, limit the future use of, or otherwise conserve and properly utilize" these resources.
Passage of the 1972 Massachusetts Wetland Protection Act (WPA) added specific mandates and powers of enforcement for the protection of vegetated wetlands and other water resource areas, while the Rivers Act of 2004 enlarged jurisdiction within a 200-foot Riverfront Area along rivers and perennial streams. Given the ubiquity of wetlands and small streams on the Carlisle landscape, the new mandates added substantially to the commission's workload.
What does the Wetlands Act require of the homeowner?
The WPA requires that documentation be filed with the commission whenever construction, landscaping or other disturbance is contemplated within a wetland and/or within the 100-foot buffer zone that surrounds it. There are two levels of acceptable filing. The applicant can file a Request for Determination of Applicability (RDA), which asks the commission to declare the proposed project to be either outside their jurisdiction or harmless enough to require no further paperwork. Otherwise, they may need to file the more detailed and costly Notice of Intent (NOI), which is required for more complex undertakings. In either case, a public hearing must take place. If an RDA is successful, the project can proceed; if it does not, an NOI will then be required.
When a majority of the commissioners are satisfied that an NOI is approvable, they issue a binding Order of Conditions that sets the limits of work and specifies the procedures to be followed during implementation, the aim being to minimize damage or alteration of the wetland. These instructions must be filed with the Registry of Deeds and remain there until the commission issues a Certificate of Completion to remove it from that document. If, on the other hand, the project is denied, the applicant can appeal to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Meet the ConsCom members
Commission members are appointed by the Board of Selectmen for staggered, three-year, renewable terms. The board meets at the Town Hall twice a month, generally on the second and fourth Thursday evening, under a chairman selected by the members. All the incumbents indicate that they volunteered for their posts out of a desire to help preserve the pastoral ambience that characterizes Carlisle. Those who are relative newcomers also cite a desire to learn about their chosen hometown while making a meaningful contribution.
Following is a list of the incumbents, with a biographical note or two that seem pertinent to the work of the commission.
· Chairman Roy J. Watson: Attorney specializing in professional immigration. With a degree in economics from Brandeis, a law degree from Boston College and work toward a master's in public administration, he espouses the value of combining economics and computer modeling to alert policy makers to "the real versus the intended consequences of their decisions."
· Vice-Chairman Peter Burn: Professor of Biology and Coordinator of Marine Biology at Suffolk University. Also an active participant in the several Sudbury, Assabet, and Concord (SUASCO) watershed organizations.
· John Lee: Manager of Allandale Farm, the last functioning farm within Boston city limits. That role includes both a commercial and an educational mission.
· Tom Schultz: Owner and CEO of his own software company. Formerly a college biology major, he has maintained his interest in environmental issues and joined the commission to learn and contribute.
· Diane Troppoli: Program coordinator at Earthworks, an organization that finds and encourages people who would like to work in the environmental and social sciences around the world, and puts them in touch with programs that can use their services.
· Kelly Stringham: Estate Planning and Tax Policy Attorney with Laurie and Cutler. Former resident of Alaska and a Harvard Law School graduate who taught a course in Public Land Law and Policy at the University of Alaska. Active in environmental issues since graduate school.
· Tricia Smith: Independent micro-dairy owner and producer of goat cheese at her homestead on Indian Hill Road. This enterprise followed over eight years of consulting work in civil engineering, focused on technology-based methodologies for architectural, engineering and construction firms.
Housing density cited as major challenge
Given the diversity of their areas of expertise and the breadth of the legislated responsibilities they have undertaken, what do the members see as the most pressing environmental challenge facing the town? The answers to this question, as gleaned in short telephone interviews, were nearly unanimous, i.e., the threat to the town's informal infrastructure posed by increased housing density. To quote Schultz, "Because there's little developable land left, there's increasing pressure to build on marginal properties. The resulting increase in population density puts Carlisle's whole well/septic system approach at risk." Agreeing that increased housing density stems primarily from developer activity, both Lee and Watson noted another often unrecognized pressure to build on sub-standard lots. The high price of land, now in the $250,000 per acre range, coupled with the high taxes on that acreage, leads long-time residents whose life savings may be tied up in that land, to cash in and sell to developers or to decide to build on a marginal portion of their nest egg. Particularly in the latter situation, commissioners are faced with a painful dichotomy that no regulatory board relishes; but unpalatable decisions must be made, one way or the other.
Mention of developers inevitably led to comments on the impact of the state's mandate to attain a 10% level of affordable housing or face so-called 40B projects that sideline most local zoning bylaws. Said Lee, "40B removes the brakes that Carlisle has maintained on density, and town boards are forced to deal with what can occur as a result. Just imagine what would have happened at Tall Pines if it had been a 40B project!" Lee is concerned that the state does not understand what 40B means to towns like Carlisle in terms of drinking water, sewage and transportation. Therefore, he favors an approach that has been broached by fellow citizen Kerry Kissinger. It suggests that the 40B mandate be regionalized, with some cities or towns supplying the majority of jobs, others with easy access to transportation providing housing, and a few preserving open space.
The suggestion for a regional response to the housing shortage is the type of thinking called for by Stringham. "We have so much intellectual talent in this town," she says, "that we should be able to come up with creative ways of meeting the requirements. Perhaps then, towns like Carlisle could more effectively lobby the legislature to make much needed revisions in the present system."
For reasons suggested in the lead to this article, every ConsCom member cited enforcement decisions as the toughest requirement of their office. Troppoli set the tone when she explained, "Enforcement is the hardest because it's not why I, or any of my colleagues signed up for the job." She also believes that some of the blame should fall on contractors, real estate brokers and other professionals who do work regularly in this area. "It's understandable that some new homeowners may not be aware of the pitfalls," she explained.
The majority of enforcement actions are the result of violations of the Wetland Protection Act as reflected and refined in the Wetland Protection Bylaw of the Town of Carlisle. Unless there is an immediate and serious threat to a resource area, the action is usually preceded by a site visit and/or a notice of violation, accompanied by a request for the culprit to appear before the board and discuss the problem. If the notice is ignored, an enforcement order will follow.
Of the four regulatory town boards, ConsCom possesses the most direct enforcement authority under town by-law: "The Commission shall have the authority and duty to enforce the Bylaw, its regulations and Orders of Conditions issued hereunder by Enforcement Orders and civil and criminal court actions." To date, the commission has chosen to employ the non-criminal disposition which allows fines of up to $300 per day, for as long as the violation continues. In practice, the members have been reluctant to apply it, except as a last resort.
As Burn made clear in the interview, "Enforcement is always difficult, particularly in cases where we believe the violation was inadvertent. We prefer to do it by persuasion, to work it out in a cooperative spirit; but if that fails, we owe it to the majority of citizens who follow the rules to see that their laws are obeyed." While seconding Burn's preference for working out mutually acceptable solutions, Watson added that, "It is still critically important, for the good of the community as a whole, that householders as well as developers are convinced the commission will not blink at enforcing our laws, should that become necessary."
All the commissioners spoke about how much they have learned, both from their colleagues and from the high level courses and workshops offered by the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions.
Also, speaking for the group as a whole, Watson acknowledged the debt that he, his colleagues and the community owe to Conservation Administrator Sylvia Willard. As he summed it up, "She is an invaluable resource with her knowledge of the WPA and related laws and lore. Her tireless dedication goes far beyond her responsibility and beyond the hours for which she is paid." As for the latest "fabulous addition" to the office staff, he lauded part-time secretary Mary Hopkins "for her careful work that makes our job so much easier."
© 2007 The