Conservation Committee’s Top Priority—Wetlands Protection
Conservation Commission's Cliff Matthews
Two words can adequately define the role of Bellingham’s Conservation Commission — wetlands protection.
Cliff Matthews, who has served as chairman for 30 of his 32 years on the commission, defines the function of the board very succinctly: “We apply state law (Wetlands Protection Act) at the local level, dealing with legal and enforceable values to wetlands.’’ The eight values, or interests, include public and private water supply, groundwater supply, fisheries, storm damage prevention, pollution prevention, protection of wildlife habitat and flood control.
The scope and jurisdiction of the ConCom concern any activity within 100 feet of a “resource area,’’ which involves wetlands, swamps, marshes, wet meadows, streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, etc.
“When an application is filed, either by a homeowner, a business or a contractor, to perform an activity within 100 feet of the resource area, we hold public hearings, review the application and eventually determine if work can proceed and what conditions will be required to permit the work, which must be consistent with the eight interests of the Wetlands Protection Act,’’ Matthews indicated.
A business or contractor may be filing an application for the building of a subdivision. A homeowner’s application could range from excavation for a swimming pool, an addition to a home or septic system repair or expansion.
Once an application is filed, members of the ConCom will verify the accuracy of the resource area and examine soil, vegetation and hydrology (any evidence of water at or just below the ground’s surface). “As far as soil goes, we look at color, size of the grain and mottles (evidence of rust in the soil’s iron content),’’ Matthews said. “We look at color because it’s one of the important characteristics in determining whether soil is upland (dry) or wetland (wet). We kind of get a feel of the lay of the land.’’
The Shoppes at Bellingham, a large-scale project that will include retail stores, office buildings and restaurants, has filed an application with the ConCom but has yet to go before other Bellingham boards. Matthews said that it has taken eight years to review and inspect the property that’s located behind Home Depot going south on North Main Street.
“The firm proposing the project has met the performance standards that protect the eight interests of the Wetlands Protection Act,’’ he noted. “They have an order of conditions but they still have to go before other town committees. It’s important that residents know that personal opinion never enters into our decision-making. Our board rules on facts and the performance standards that protect the eight interests that have been listed earlier.’’
Any project that the ConCom reviews goes to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which issues a file number on the application. The DEP then studies the project and either approves the board’s decision or notes that deficiencies exist. “If there are any deficiencies, chances are we would have addressed them,’’ Matthews emphasized. “The DEP has 10 days to appeal any final permit we grant, but that agency has never appealed a permit in Bellingham.’’
Matthews said that applicants and abutters, however, have appealed permits. “Applicants sometimes believe our board is too hard and abutters sometimes think we’re not hard enough,’’ he said.
Once a project is under way and there’s any indication that adherence isn’t being followed, then work shuts down until the violation is corrected, Matthews said. “If what needs attention is taken care of, then there’s zero violation. Besides the Wetlands Protection Act, we have a town bylaw that provides an extra layer of protection to preserve the eight interests. A good example is the no-disturbance zone, which means no activity can be performed in the first 25 feet of the 100-foot buffer zone.’’
The ConCom has seven members — Matthews, vice chairman Neal Standly, Lori Fafard, Mike O’Herron, Brian Norton, Shawn Wade, and Mike Roche. They serve three-year terms and are appointed by the Selectmen. Matthews said that a major requirement to become a member involves “a willingness to learn.’’ Reading plans, undergoing training, attending seminars, inspecting sites and having an ability to identify plant, soil and water resources are necessary tasks.
Matthews, who majored in psychology at Eastern Connecticut State, says his interest in conservation began as a youth who enjoyed being an outdoorsman. “That piqued my interest,’’ he said. “I later attended seminars, and still do, and work closely with professional wetland scientists.’’
Money the ConCom collects from filing fees for applications under the local bylaw is deposited into the board’s land acquisition fund, which is used for surveys and appraisals. Money from the fund has also been spent to buy land for the town.
Town Administrator Denis Fraine lauded the work of the ConCom, especially in its land-acquisition effort.
“The commission has led the way to purchase significant parcels of open space, which are protected from future development,’’ Fraine said. “Most notably, through the leadership of the commission, the town secured a $700,000 grant in the mid 1990s to purchase Silver Lake. Today, Silver Lake is the town’s most vibrant recreational resource. Additionally, with the help of the commission, the town obtained grants from the Dept. of Conservation Resources to build the Blackstone Street ball-field complex adjacent to the high school and middle school. These fields are used by the schools as well as being the primary fields for many of the town’s youth programs.’’