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Carlisle’s Wetlands, Floodplains & Riverfronts

Preserving Carlisle’s wetlands, floodplains, and riverfronts is crucial to our natural environment and for protection of water resources.  Living and working near these areas can raise issues.  This brochure answers some of the key questions asked by
local property owners.

What are wetlands, floodplains and riverfronts?

Wetlands include the obviously wet areas such as lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, marshes and swamps.  Legally, the term also includes areas where groundwater is near or above the surface of the ground long enough during the growing season to support wetland vegetation and establish hydric soil conditions. They may be dry for a significant portion of the year.  Wetlands are called Bordering Vegetated Wetlands (BVW) if they are adjacent to a water body.  Isolated Wetlands are unconnected to a water body and may include seasonal or “vernal” pools.

Floodplains are areas bordering rivers and streams that flood following rain storms or snowmelt.

Riverfront Areas border rivers and streams that flow throughout the year (perennial) and extend, under state law, 200 feet from the edge of the bank or mean annual high water elevation.

Why are wetlands, floodplains and riverfronts protected?

These “resource areas” are protected by Federal, state, and the Carlisle Wetland Bylaw because they provide important natural resource benefits.  Wetlands protect water quality by trapping sediment and debris, breaking down pollutants, and absorbing excessive nutrients in water that would otherwise cause nuisance algae and plant growth.  Wetlands and floodplains serve as important wildlife habitat by providing food, breeding areas, and protective cover.  Wetlands and floodplains also act like sponges by absorbing stormwater runoff and releasing this water slowly to moderate flooding and stormwater damage.  Through these functions, wetlands protect and recharge our drinking water supplies, provide recreation opportunities, prevent pollution, protect property from flood damage, and support ecological diversity.

How are boundaries of wetlands and floodplains identified?
The Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act (MGL Ch. 131 s.40) and its regulations (319 CMR 10.00) issued by the Massachusetts Division of Environmenal Protection establish the science-based legal definitions used to identify and delineate wetlands and floodplains.  Rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds are easy to identify and are generally found on town maps.  Perennial streams shown on the U.S. Geologic Survey topographic maps are presumed to have protected riverfront areas.  However, a stream’s status as perennial or intermittent can be overcome with sufficient technical evidence. Vegetated wetlands are identified on the basis of their hydrologic characteristics (i.e. how wet they are).  Characteristic vegetation – such as skunk cabbage, cinnamon fern, tussock sedge, high bush blueberry, is used to identify the presence and location of swamps, marshes, wet meadows, and other types of vegetated wetlands.  Soil characteristics that reflect saturated soil conditions at or near the ground surface are also used.  The top of bank is found at the first break in slope or the mean high water level.  Bordering Land Subject to Flooding is identified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for flood insurance purposes, by engineering calculations, or with reliable historical observations.

   The Carlisle Conservation Commission has maps that show the approximate location of wetland boundaries throughout the town.  However, such maps can only be used as guidance.  Actual field delineations are required of permit applicants.  The assistance of a wetland consultant and a land surveyor is often required to identify and delineate wetlands and floodplains.  The Conservation Commission office can provide a list of consultants who have worked in Carlisle although the commission does not recommend specific firms or individuals.

What activities are subject to the Wetlands Protection Act?

The Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act is a state law that governs alterations such as filling, excavating, removing trees and other vegetation, erecting structures, paving, septic systems, landscaping, pool installation within 100 feet (Buffer Zone) of a wetland resource area or 200 feet of a perennial stream without a permit from the Conservation Commission.  Typical examples of activities that are regulated, if they are to occur within resource areas or their 100-foot buffer zones, include but are not limited to: depositing fill, excavating, removing vegetation including trees, changing water levels, discharging storm water, polluting, placing structures, and utilizing chemicals.  There are certain limited exemptions that apply to commercial agriculture, forestry, and utility maintenance.

What if work is planned in or near a resource area?

The first step is to contact the Carlisle Conservation Commission office.  The administrator will advise you of the Act’s and the Carlisle Wetland Bylaw requirements and other related regulations, and provide guidance as to the most appropriate process to follow.
   There are two common processes available to project applicants: the Request for Determination of Applicability (RDA) and the Notice of Intent (NOI).  The RDA is the simpler procedure.  It is used to obtain a finding as to whether areas subject to protection are present or if the work involved is significant enough to warrant a full permit application.
  The NOI is the full permit application process and is used to evaluate whether and under what conditions the proposed work will comply with the performance standards of the Act’s regulations.  Some work may be denied, but more commonly the project is modified during the public hearing process.  Specific conditions are placed on the project if needed to ensure compliance with the requirements of the Act and the wetland bylaw.  For both the RDA and the NOI a legal notice is published in the local newspaper at the applicant’s expense and the applicant is required to notify abutters.  In most cases, the public meeting or hearing to review the application is completed in one session, but it is not uncommon, especially for larger projects, for the public meeting or hearing to be continued. Once the Commission has determined that sufficient information has been submitted, the public hearing is closed.  In the case of the RDA, the commission will determine if a NOI will be required.  In the case of the NOI the commission has 21 days after the close of the hearing in which to issue the full permit, called an Order of Conditions.  A 10 business-day appeal period applies after the order or the determination is issued.

What happens if a violation of the Act occurs?

Under the Act and the bylaw, the property owner is ultimately responsible for any violations of the law and regulations.  Violations occur when a person fails to obtain a permit from the Commission or fails to comply with the conditions of a permit.  A violation will trigger a communication from the commission.  Depending on the nature of the violation, it will informally request compliance or issue a formal Enforcement Order.  Violations are punishable by a maximum fine of $25,000 and/or not more than two years of imprisonment.  In addition, the property owner is usually required to restore altered resource areas and buffer zones to their original condition.  This requirement can be costly and time consuming.  It is always less costly to communicate with the commission before undertaking work and obtain the necessary permit rather than to violate the Act.

What other wetland related regulations may apply?

In addition to the state Wetlands Protection Act, there are other related federal, state and local laws that may affect an activity in or near a wetland.  These include the Town of Carlisle Wetland/Flood Hazard district, Sections 401 and 404 of the Federal Clean Water Act, and the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act.  The commission does not administer or enforce these laws, but coordinates with other agencies.

How can I get more information?

Contact the Conservation Commission office for guidance as to whether a protected resource area is located on a specific property and/or whether an activity is subject to regulation.  The text of the Wetlands Protection Act, the regulations and application forms can be viewed on the DEP’s website, shown below.  They may also be viewed in the Carlisle Conservation Commission office along with the Carlisle Non-zoning Wetland Bylaw.  The State House Bookstore in Boston and the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions in Belmont are also sources for the state law, regulations and forms.

Department of Environmental Protection
Northeast Region, Wetlands Division
205B Lowell St., Wilmington, MA  01887
(978) 694-3200

Policies and Procedures
Applicants must contact the Carlisle Conservation Commission office for policies and procedures regarding deep hole and percolation tests as well as filing requirements and fees.                              

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Town of Carlisle 66 Westford Street, Carlisle, MA 01741

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