The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has in place a comprehensive set of rules and regulations to protect the environment, most notably wetlands and other water resources that are vital to the public well-being.
Collectively known as the Wetlands Protection Act, these laws form the foundation for regulating a wide variety of landscaping activities – everything from backyard improvements to large-scale municipal development projects (see our previous blog post). But state laws are not the only rules that affect landscaping projects. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that local town environmental regulations can have just as great – if not greater – impact on what you can and cannot do when it comes to landscaping. Specifically, we’re talking about your local conservation commission.
Part I, Title VII, Chapter 40, Section 8C of the Massachusetts General Laws establishes the responsibilities of local conservation commissions as organizations responsible for “the promotion and development of natural resources and for the protection of watershed resources of said city or town.” Communities are given a lot of leeway on how they fund conservation. While conservation commissions are volunteer organizations made up of local residents, most towns have a paid conservation agent who works actively to encourage proper use of natural resources and to enforce local environmental by-laws. It behooves you to get to know this person well if you plan to actively develop your property, especially if it’s located on or near water sources or general wetlands.
The conservation agent can be a useful ally for your landscaping activities so it’s always a good idea to get him or her involved in your planning early on and solicit advice and recommendations. The conservation agent’s input can be invaluable for helping you develop your plans in accordance with state and local laws and for properly preparing your application to help ensure smooth sailing through the conservation commission approval process.
Conservation commissions are bound by Massachusetts open meeting laws and must follow a certain set of binding rules governing how they operate, including requiring a quorum and public notices to hold meetings. That means that you, too, must follow the rules and not attempt any shortcuts and ask for special considerations. Come prepared with the right paperwork and necessary information for your landscape project.
What you DON’T need is advice from well-intentioned friends or acquaintances in neighboring communities who might insist on telling you what by-laws they think you need to follow. It’s important to remember that environmental by-laws can vary greatly from town to town because the state does not regulate them, instead relying on each municipality to develop appropriate rules and regulations to meet the needs of their specific community and its natural resources. The regulation your friend from the next town over insists must be adhered to might not even be on the books in your community.
Conservation commissions play a vital role in safeguarding the natural resources of our cities and towns. As volunteers, the work they do can be thankless and underappreciated. It’s important to realize that they’re there for the greater good -- to protect the environment and our critical water resources that benefit us all. The by-laws they help establish and enforce are for our own good. So as you plan your landscape project, remember that the conservation commission and your local conservation agent are not intentionally trying to cause you problems, they’re just looking out for everyone’s best interests, including yours. A little cooperation and consideration on your part can save you a lot of money and aggravation later on.