Over a year ago a survey with a record-breaking response from residents and businesses highlighted concerns raised by Reading’s overly severe Conservation Commission bylaws. At the time, the Town Manager called for the elimination of local bylaws that exceed State required environmental protection laws and the Board of Selectman instructed the Conservation Commission to review local bylaws and eliminate all that were not absolutely essential to protecting the environment in Reading.
The Commission recently unveiled the results of their year-long slog through the 50 pages of local bylaws and the results are in: more remains better.
The Conservation Commission is recommending the town continue to enforce the restrictions on isolated wetland – those wet spots not connected to a body of water -despite the state’s view that these are not environmentally significant. The Commission says they want to keep these to prevent “flooding,” which is a bit of a dramatization, given there are alternatives that could address their concerns but not require the law. But, that is a whole other story for another time.
Most concerning is that the Commission wants to increase the fees and fine that would be levied on property owners who have these isolated or other wetlands on or near their property.
On one hand, the Commission advocates argue that the property owners are doing a service to the entire town by maintaining wetlands to help reduce run off from snow melt that could wind up in a neighbor’s yard or basement and increase town costs relating to sewers and drainage infrastructure. On the other hand the Commission wants these property owners to pay even more for permits when they want to make improvements to their property – especially if you are a business, whose rates will be even higher than those charged to resident, because, paraphrasing the Chairman of the Commission, businesses all presumably make money and can afford to pay.
The Conservation Commission wants to raise fees in order to pay for the salary of the Conservation Administrator and the time and effort the Town puts into enforcing local bylaws. Keep in mind, the town already receives a portion of the fees paid to the state for these purposes, which the local fees are on top of, the Administrator position is now part time rather than full time as it was under the lower fee structure and the Commissioners are all unpaid volunteers. It should be said, the Town Manager is quick to point out that none of this money flows directly to the Administrator or the Commission, the town uses appropriate accounting principals to manage the money, but the result is the same.
Setting aside all this feels a little like the fox watching the hen house.
Here’s an alternative idea: if property owners with wetlands are doing a service for the entire community and the community needs money to pay for the privilege of such services beyond the property taxes they already charge these home owners, why not implement a “conservation tax,” on all property owners and provide a tax exemption for those who are providing the wetlands?
One of the big challenges in Reading is that we want it all, but often don’t want to pay for it. Whether it’s a new school, a new library or a more restrictive set of local wetland laws than the state requires, the entire community should pick up their share of the tab or not expect neighbors to be happy when the burden falls on them alone.