Local Government and Politics, News

Nahant Town Meeting to vote on Wetlands Protection bylaw

Northeastern University's facility in Nahant.
Northeastern University's facility in Nahant. (Spenser R. Hasak)

NAHANT — An article on the Town Meeting warrant asks voters to decide whether the Wetlands Protection bylaw adopted last August should be repealed in its entirety.

Selectmen Enzo Barile called for voters to revisit and decide whether to rescind the bylaw, citing the heat and lack of space in Town Hall at the first meeting that lasted more than 3 ½ hours and left not a single chair — or square inch of floor space — unoccupied.

In a strongly worded, nearly two-page recommendation, the Finance Committee said “the bylaw’s onerous requirements and duplicative rulemaking create an undue burden on Nahant homeowners, without meaningful new benefits to the town.”

The bylaw appears to be targeted and discriminatory and open to legal challenge without any guarantee that it will do anything to alter Northeastern University’s plans, according to the recommendation mailed to registered voters.

“The dubious timing and process, communications around the bylaw, repeated public statements on social media and elsewhere about its intent, and veiled references in official meetings to ‘a large academic institution, for instance’ would clearly indicate the bylaw’s target to be Northeastern University and its proposed expansion,” the statement reads.

But Conservation Commission Chairwoman Kristen Kent says otherwise.

“I think some people are certainly motivated by how they feel about Northeastern,” said Kent. “The Conservation Commission is motivated by what happened in last March’s storms. It was bad. It has been getting worse and we have been seeing people getting hurt by this floodplain issue, and so it was an opportunity for us to get something that we think is good for the town.”

In essence, the bylaw prohibits the removal, filling, dredging, building upon, degrading, discharging into, or otherwise altering the listed resource areas (freshwater or coastal wetlands, marshes, etc.), except as authorized by the Conservation Commission. The bylaw establishes a permit application, notice and hearing, and determination procedure. It was adopted by Town Meeting in August 2018 and approved by the attorney general in September.

During the August meeting, a yes or no ballot was handed out, as voted by the body, and 285 returned the slip in favor while 278 were opposed to an amendment to the town’s bylaws to change the permitting process for projects within the town’s wetlands.

But if the elderly couldn’t stand the heat in Town Hall in August, residents questioned, could they withstand the cold of December?

A petition asking the board not to hold the Special Town Meeting gathered more than 500 signatures in a week and was presented to selectmen.

In addition to honoring the votes that were cast by 583 registered voters who attended the meeting, the petition called for selectmen to refrain from spending more money on town meetings, and to instead address the other priorities of the town that need the Board of Selectmen’s time and attention.

“As residents of the town, we seek to preserve the democratic process of our Town Meeting governance and direct the Board of Selectmen to move on from this activity and focus on more important town priorities,” the petition read.

“Don’t you understand plain English? Don’t you understand that this is a home-rule organization here? We go by the rule of law,” resident Tom Costin Sr. said during a Board of Selectmen meeting in October. Costin served as the mayor of Lynn from 1955 to 1961. “The people voted. If you try to do this, I’m going to go to the attorney general and to the Secretary of State to point out that you people don’t know how to run a government.”

Resident Julie Tarmy said most of the town knows that she didn’t vote in favor of the bylaw, but she also doesn’t support “a redo.”

“I voted against the bylaw,” said Tarmy. “That was my right. But I also don’t support another vote. My vote was not on the winning side, but I’m OK with that. It’s the democratic process.”

The Conservation Commission was tasked with creating its rules and regulations in August. The unanimous vote to accept the regulations didn’t happen until March. It was the final action to be taken. The Board of Selectmen does not have jurisdiction to vote on the regulations.

“The commission is here to help you do what you want to do to your property,” said Kent. “We are not trying to stop people. We want you to comply with the law because, A, it’s the law, and B, it’s a safety issue for a lot of people.”

About 390 homeowners have already been subject to the state Wetlands Protection Act since the 1970s and need to file with the Conservation Commission to complete certain work on their properties. Those homes also fall under the town’s bylaw. About 70 more properties that fall in a 100-foot buffer zone on the town’s bylaw map will now also need to visit the commission.

In the past five years, the panel has not denied a single permit, said Kent. If a resident does receive a denial from the board, members must clarify in a written decision whether the application was denied under the state law or the bylaw. Under the Wetlands Protection Act, a resident would appeal to Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. Under the bylaw, a resident would appeal to superior court.

“Both require an attorney,” said Kent.

Flood insurance is not impacted by the map included in the bylaws, which sets several properties in the buffer zone, said Kent. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) does not go town-by-town across the nation to review bylaws and change their maps. The cost of flood insurance only increases when FEMA changes its own maps, she said.

Town Meeting will convene at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday.

More Stories From Nahant