Development restrictions proposed to protect Boston wetlands

by Andrew Morrell

Members of Boston City Council as well as Mayor Marty Walsh are considering new regulations to protect local wetlands from overdevelopment. The Boston Globe reported Feb. 11 that officials were looking into enacting a local Wetlands Protection Act that would supplement development restrictions already enforced at the state level. At the urging of groups like the Boston Conservation Commission, the rules would be another tool in the city’s growing arsenal against the effects of climate change.

Boston is considered especially susceptible to rising sea levels and more severe storm flooding over the next century as a result of global warming. However, preemptive restrictions on real estate development have been difficult to enact in a booming market.

Wetlands offer a natural buffer against flood waters, but they also play a major ecological role in the water cycle and as a habitat for wildlife. Urbanization is among the greatest threats to the preservation of wetlands. The Boston Conservation Commission oversees a total of almost seven square miles of land, including wetlands, around the city. Much of it is scattered in small patches in urban and suburban neighborhoods. A local wetlands protection ordinance could expand that jurisdiction and prevent more development that puts these areas at risk.

“Boston needs to think more specifically about its dense, urban environment and how you do that,” said Joe Orfant, a consultant for the Conservation Commission, in an interview with the Boston Globe. “Maybe what we need to start looking at is saving the natural areas we have, and ways to protect them. I don’t think we think a lot about the wetlands resource in Boston.”

The city’s recent building boom has been blamed by some as a major direct contributor to climate change, beyond just its side effects on wetlands. City Councilor Michelle Wu, who proposed the local wetlands bill with Councilor Matt O’Malley, said such a law “would be the fastest, largest single step we can take in empowering our resiliency efforts around development in the city,” according to the Globe.

“We are in a booming market, and as we are having those conversations with residents about how to balance economic development and physical development with open space… We need to have more tools in our basket,” Wu added.

Unfortunately, vast stretches of coastal wetlands may still be susceptible to the effects of climate change, even with more restrictive ordinances inland. The Massachusetts Port Authority is already rewriting plans and budgets to account for a predicted 70-inch rise in Boston sea levels by 2070. Storms like Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and a series of nor’easters during the winter of 2017-2018 incapacitated Boston’s commercial port, one of the busiest in the U.S., for several days at a time. That’s why a portion of Governor Charlie Baker’s proposed $1 billion climate change preparedness fund would go to flood mitigation improvements at the port. Since a physical flood barrier isn’t feasible in the event of such dramatic sea level rise, Massport’s plans call for simply raising key infrastructure, like electrical transformers and roads, above ground level.

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