New Wetlands Regulations (Finally) Headed To A Vote

JohnCarl McGrady •

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Folger's Marsh. Photo by Kit Noble |

The Conservation Commission is set to take a final vote on its long-delayed overhaul of the island’s wetland regulations on June 27th. Under the new regulations, no-disturb zones would be set to 25 feet—down from 50 feet in a version under consideration last July—and no new structures would be allowed within 75 feet of wetlands. The regulations would also impose further restrictions on coastal engineering projects and require that all pools be designed to never interact with floodwater.

After years of debate and negotiation, the Commission is close to adopting the first significant alteration to the regulations in over a decade. At a meeting Thursday, the Commission voted 6-1 to schedule a final hybrid public hearing on June 27th, with a vote to be taken on a finalized version of the new regulations by the end of the meeting. If the regulations pass, they will likely go into effect on January 1st, 2025. Joe Plandowski was the lone no vote, opposed to further delay. The hearing will afford the public yet another opportunity to comment on the regulations, a concession to members of the Commission who felt it had been too long since the last public hearing that allowed for in-person participation.

Commissioners have long argued that the update is necessary to protect the island’s environment, conform to the large body of existing scientific research, and prepare the island for the impacts of climate change.

However, the proposal has drawn some opposition, including from the Nantucket Builders’ Association, and not every Commissioner supports it. At least one Commissioner, Linda Williams, is staunchly opposed to the new regulations because of the increased mandatory setbacks in wetland buffer zones.

“I'm not willing to vote for anything with that 75-foot buffer zone, period,” Williams said.

Williams and Nantucket Builders’ Association President Frank Daily argue that the regulations could infringe on the property rights of homeowners hoping to develop land near wetlands. But Williams is outnumbered by the commissioners in favor of the proposal, with chair Ian Golding cutting her off at several points in the meeting.

“You’ve made yourself so clear,” Golding said. “Please stop reiterating your point.”

“If you start talking about things like economic impacts, building impacts, things that are outside of our purview, that is absolutely not our role,” commissioner Seth Engelbourg said. “I have submitted numerous peer-reviewed articles related to the expanded buffer zones.”

The regulations will likely be passed on the 27th, as a majority of the Commission seems to support them. Although new commissioners will be appointed on the 26th, potentially shaking up the membership of the Commission, the old commissioners will remain in their current positions until after the meeting, allowing them the chance to vote on the regulations. The main issue the Commission has faced so far in its attempt to overhaul the wetland regulations is not internal opposition but the inability to bring the proposal to a vote in the first place.

“We've been going around in circles on this for so long," Golding said. “We could be stonewalled on this until 2027.”

A faction of the Commission attempted to pass the regulations at Thursday’s meeting without any further public hearings, spurring a heated debate that nearly spiraled out of Golding’s control. Golding, along with fellow commissioners Mark Beale and Joe Plandowski, argued that further delay was unnecessary and could potentially prevent the regulations from ever passing.

“This is not going to get done. We'll never get this done, folks,” Beale said. “We're spinning our wheels.”

But other commissioners saw no harm in one more hearing, hoping it could unify the public behind the regulations.

“I would think it would be appropriate to have one or two public hearings,” commissioner Mike Missurelli said.

Ultimately, the motion to adopt the regulations was defeated, with Golding reluctantly conceding to the majority.

The one area the Commission seemed able to find consensus on was that the wetland regulations should be updated more often in the future.

“Updating them every three years is great,” Engelbourg said. “Honestly, we could update them every year. The reason this has taken so long is that so much has changed in 11 years.”

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