Human Activity Driving Conservation Commission Changes

By: William F. Galvin

Conservation Commission bylaw amendments would call for a moratorium on docks and piers along the Herring River. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

HARWICH - Human activity is having an adverse impact on ecological health along town waterways, and the conservation commission is looking to take steps to reverse that.

The commission has been pushing for changes to its wetland protection bylaw and the water-dependent structure bylaw over the past year. It was unable to get amendments to the bylaws placed on the annual town meeting warrant last spring because selectmen said the proposed changes did not have enough public input.

People need to be clearly educated about the changes, Selectman Donald Howell said. An effort to include the bylaw amendments in the special town meeting scheduled for Oct. 18 was also turned aside by selectmen based on the education issue and the desire to keep the special town meeting warrant as concise as possible.

Commission co-chairs Brad Chase and Ernest Crabtree were before selectmen last week to educate the board and the general public about changes under consideration and to ask the board’s support for including the bylaw amendments in the 2022 annual town meeting.

 Over the past two years, the commission has held six meetings relating to the proposed changes, Chase said. During the pandemic, there was not a lot of public participation, he acknowledged.

The draft amendments to the water-dependent structure bylaw including tightening up language and definitions as well as some major changes, such as a proposal to establish a moratorium on new docks and piers on Herring River.

Recent changes in waterfront property values and ownership are contributing to growing interest to add docks and piers at locations long considered unsuitable, or marginal for permitting,” said Chase, longtime conservation commission chairman and a marine biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. “There is growing concern over declining water, habitat and recreational quality in the Herring River as boating density, water dependent structures and buffer zone alterations increase.”

Research estimates that there has been an increase of approximately 54 percent in the number of docks and piers in Allen Harbor, Wychmere Harbor, and the Herring River since 1970.

The absence of sunlight caused by the construction of walkways and piers and scouring caused by tidal movement against pilings and boats have eliminated large chunks of salt marsh that will not grow back, Chase said.

Changes in the water-dependent structures bylaw are also designed to clarify and improve the standards and requirements for permitting docks and piers. Proposed changes look at water depth of floats; pier, dock and walkway dimensions, off-season float storage, dredging, and the protection of shellfish, salt marsh and coastal banks. 

Docks and piers cannot be blamed in isolation for the declining ecological health of the town embayments,” Chase said. “Causal factors have not been clearly documented, although the analysis of nitrogen as a proxy for eutrophication clearly suggests that human population growth and associated  loading from septic systems is the primary culprit.”

He added, “However, some direct impacts from dock and piers are obvious, and it is reasonable to expect that the increasing density of coastal structures and associated boating contributes to declining aquatic health.”

The proposed amendments to the wetland protection bylaw would reduce the size of a regulated wetland from 3,000 square feet to 1,000 square feet. The setback for the new structure zone in the wetlands protection bylaw amendment would be increased from 50 feet to 60 feet.

Crabtree said a large amount of stress is being placed on wetland resources. Vernal pools are important to the environment, and the reduction in the size of regulated wetlands will help protect them as well as groundwater and wildlife habitat.

Regarding the increase in the no-disturb zone to 60 feet, Crabtree said builders want to place structures at the 50-foot no-build zone, but there are all kinds of activity over the edge of the zone creating disturbances within the restricted area.  

There has not been much push back,” Crabtree said of reaction to the proposal. 

Other wetlands protection bylaw amendments would add definitions and tighten language relative to cumulative effect, mitigation, variances, shellfish surveys and funds for consulting fees.  

Selectmen Chairman Michael MacAskill said he wanted to make sure private property rights are protected, especially with a moratorium. There is a need for language that makes it clear that property owners with piers and docks along the Herring River have the right to replace existing structures. 

Crabtree and Chase said the commission would continue working on adjustments to the bylaw amendments for submission to the annual town warrant. 

It’s a lot to digest,” Howell said. “There’s a difference between placing it in the warrant and voting to support it. I’m not smart enough right now.”

A motion to include the bylaws in the annual town meeting warrant passed 3-1.

I vote no,” Howell said. “I don’t know what I’m voting for.”