Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

For Peats Sake: Supporting Local Land Use Planners in Wetland Protection

By Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

Like many of you, I wear many different hats. But one of my favorite hats is that of the advocate for local land use planning efforts. I have a strong background in the development of grassroots organizations, creative and cultural economic development and land use planning. However, I do not believe in using only a ground up or top down model. I believe that no matter what the issue at hand is, the outcome of any effort to address it will only be successful if there is room for both approaches. This is why working for the Association of State Wetland Managers is so interesting for me. The state level approach allows for a middle ground perspective and dialogue between federal-state-local decision-making. It’s kind of like being the middle child – the peacekeeper.

However, since significantly more money comes to state programs from federal revenue than local revenue, the issues that get addressed are primarily focused on the state-federal relationship. I have personally found a disappointing dearth of dialogue between state and local land use efforts and an even bigger gap between federal and local. This needs to change. We need more balance.

I recently had dinner with a graduate school friend who is currently working as a Planner for a small city in New Hampshire with a population of about 23,000 according to the 2010 US Census. The only source of revenue for local government in New Hampshire is property taxes. As we all know, the majority of wetlands are situated on privately owned lands. So there is the rub – how do you restrict land use on private land when the private landowners are funding your department and most of them do not have a background in wetland science or policy?

Planners in small towns such as this wear many more hats than any of us and are expected to know a lot about everything – from architecture, to building codes and zoning methods, to Comprehensive Plans, to downtown revitalization and economic development, to GIS techniques, to facilitation methods, to surface water protection and much, much more. These local planners are overwhelmed with expectations and too often are totally lacking in the capacity to meet those expectations. And to top it off, they generally have no real political power – at least not in New England. Typically the Town Council or Board of Selectmen directs the planning department efforts, and often those local decision makers have no land use planning knowledge or skills.

Here is an example of this quagmire from my friend in New Hampshire:

This city recently adopted a Surface Water Protection Ordinance which was adopted as part of the city’s Zoning Ordinance. According to this new ordinance, in order to get approval to encroach into a buffer area around a surface water, an applicant must propose “extraordinary mitigation” as part of a Conditional Use Permit application. However, there is no legal definition provided as to what “extraordinary mitigation” is nor is there anyone in the Planning Department with a wetland science background who is qualified to do any sort of wetland functional assessment or even suggest what that definition might be. They barely have money to run their own department – how will they find the money to hire a consultant?

Furthermore, as my friend said to me in a follow-up correspondence:

“in NH state law declares that single family units/homes and duplexes are exempt from site plan review or any review by the Planning Board, so most development the City regulates is large residential, commercial, or industrial. It makes it very difficult to ensure that people are meeting the requirements of the Surface Water Protection Ordinance when they don’t come before the board or have any requirements to submit plans. It falls upon Code Enforcement when people apply for a building permit to verify that there are no surface waters… So what we’re seeing now are tons of applications through the winter months when it’s even more difficult to verify the presence of a surface water and no one wants to go trek around people’s properties in 2 feet of snow looking for iced-over puddles.”

Recent studies have shown a significant shift in demographics – people are moving into cities and away from more rural areas. I suggest that if we do not do a better job of reaching out to and supporting local efforts to incorporate and enforce watershed planning into local ordinances, we risk undercutting all of our efforts on the state and federal level.

Fortunately, some efforts to fill this gap are beginning to make traction. The Wisconsin Wetlands Association has developed a Land Use and Wetlands Publication Series which includes:

I hope to see more outreach and collaboration efforts like this in the future. I know I’ll be starting this conversation in my own home town, where we are updating our Comprehensive Plan. At the last Town Council meeting, the Chairman scoffed at the inclusion of language to increase minimum setbacks for streams with native brown trout habitat to 100 feet.  The response from our Planning Department was…”well we just transferred that over from the last plan” from 1996. For Peat’s Sake, we clearly have a lot of work to do.

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