NAHANT — In a meeting that lasted more than 3½ hours and left not a single chair — or square inch of floor space — unoccupied, registered voters passed an amendment to the town’s bylaws to change the permitting process for projects within the town’s wetlands by seven votes.
Nahant has an open Town Meeting, meaning any registered voter who lives in town can take a vote. More than 500 residents took advantage of that right Monday night.
A yes or no ballot was handed out, as voted by the body, and 285 returned the slip in favor while 278 were opposed.
“This bylaw is a big deal for a little town,” said Conservation Commission vice-chair Kristin Kent.
There has been debate over the decision since it was first proposed last year.
According to a document outlining the zoning bylaw amendments that were originally proposed, the purpose of the zoning bylaw was “to protect the wetlands, water resources, and adjoining land areas in Nahant by controlling activities deemed by the Board of Appeals likely to have a significant or cumulative effect on resource area values.”
The amendments will require permits to remove, fill, dredge, build on, degrade, discharge into, and otherwise alter any freshwater or coastal wetlands.
The bylaw also covers marshes, wet meadows, bogs, swamps, vernal pools, banks, reservoirs, lakes, ponds, quarry pits, rivers, streams, creeks, beaches, dunes, estuaries, the ocean, land under water bodies, land subject to flooding by groundwater or surface water, land subject to tidal action and all land within 100 feet of any of these features.
Originally, residents who live within the zoning area would be required to apply for permits with the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Conservation Commission before completing projects, but that has since been changed.
Now, the only way to appeal a Conservation Commission decision would be through Superior Court.
Residents and conservationists argued that although the state has its own wetlands protections, the town is in need of added protection that is unique to the town and fills in any gaps.
One notable difference between the state and local bylaw is that a buffer zone on the town flood maps is extended by 100 feet with the town bylaw. This affects about 75 residents, according to proponents.
“I think this is the right time and the right bylaw for the town,” said resident Mark Cullinan, former Town Administrator, who cited last winter’s storms and astronomical high tides as an example.
“The wetlands are our first line of defense,” he said.
Others, including resident Michael Manning, argued that the state protection was sufficient. Some suggested the only purpose of the bylaw was to try to combat Northeastern University’s plans for expansion on East Point.
“The only legitimate party to negotiate with Northeastern is the Board of Selectmen. Period,” said Peter Rogers.
He also argued that requiring appeals to Conservation Commission decisions to be filed in Superior Court could “open the door to mischief and possible misuse of power.”
The decision ultimately came down to a yes or no ballot, collected by a group of volunteer tellers, and tallied on stage.