The appeals process for wetlands protection decisions can be a cumbersome impediment to development in Massachusetts. To speed it up, the Patrick administration is proposing a number of regulatory changes. While several make sense, the plan to deprive groups of residents of their right to appeal decisions is entirely at odds with Deval Patrick’s campaign theme of greater public involvement in government.
Until now, any 10 residents have been able to join as a group and challenge a wetlands decision, even if they are not abutters or directly affected by the proposed project. Supporters of the 10-residents provision see it as a way for the public to stand up for a natural resource that a local conservation commission and the state Department of Environmental Protection might be willing to sacrifice in the name of economic development. Critics say the rule can be misused by opponents of, for instance, an affordable housing project who are not really concerned about protecting wetlands but use the appeals process to delay the development interminably.
That is a legitimate concern, but another of the state’s proposed changes would reduce this threat by placing a six-month time limit on the appeals process. Nor is it clear that the state’s Division of Administrative Law Appeals is being overwhelmed by wetlands appeals. While there have been 13 so far this year, there were just four in 2006.
As an example of how the system can be abused, Patrick administration officials like to point to the challenge to the Hoosac range wind farm in the Berkshires. State officials believe that area residents who have aesthetic objections to the wind turbines have focused on plans for the service roads to the ridge site as a way to delay or possibly block the whole project. But, whatever the motivations of the residents challenging the plans for the roads, they will cross streams in 10 places and merit an intense review process.
Nearly a third of the state’s wetlands have been destroyed since Colonial times. Those that remain are an indispensable resource. They cleanse drinking water supplies, protect against flooding, and provide habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. Massachusetts has been a leader among the states in seeing the value of wetlands and conserving them.
In that effort, 10-resident groups have played a generally useful role and should not be stripped of their standing now simply to fulfill Patrick’s campaign pledge to streamline the permitting process. The administration’s proposal should be amended for another reason: It fails to provide for challenges by established groups, such as the Charles River Watershed Association.
There are enough sound provisions in the regulatory reform package to ensure a speedier process. They should be tried before the state banishes its wetlands Minutemen.
6 August 2007
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