Before you begin building a structure, you have to obtain permits and approvals from various civic bodies. This involves showing your plans to everyone from the building inspector to the fire captain to the health agent. In the best case, permitting is a Byzantine process requiring much patience and decent penmanship. (I begin to wonder how much more paperwork would be needed to nominate our house for sainthood.)
After several days of shuffling, stamping, stapling, and collating, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. On a cool, early-Spring day, I dropped our kit off on the last stop of its red-taped odyssey: the Norwell Conservation Commission.
The Big Snag
A few days later, the Norwell Conservation Agent came by to look at our site. She looked about, took notes, and gave us some bad, bad news. Much of our lot fit the technical definition of a wetland, and consequently our project would be forced to operate under some rather onerous restrictions.
Before describing them, however, the term wetland requires a bit of explanation. The very word conjures images of a swamp, bayou, or tidal estuary, rife with manatees, mosquitoes, and malaria. It evokes liquid water, and this is somewhat misleading. According to the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, a wetland may or may not actually be saturated with surface or groundwater water at a given time, although it doesn’t necessarily require the constant presence of liquid water to be considered a wetland. The defining characteristics of a wetland are botanical. In other words, the presence of certain kinds of ferns, trees, or undergrowth determine whether or not a piece of land is considered a wetland, legally speaking. This is because the soil in a wetlands area is composed in such a way that only certain species are adapted to survive in them. (Believe it or not, Red Maple is wetland species.)
Much to our dismay, certain parts of our lot ran amok with a wide variety of wetland species. The Conservation Agent issued us a set of terms that had to be satisfied before we could proceed with construction. To wit, we were obligated to hire an environmental consultant to prepare an ecological impact statement. We also had to have a surveyor prepare detailed drawings of our lot, with elevations and markings denoting the flagged wetlands areas. Additionally, we had to design and install an erosion-control system, consisting of straw bales and plastic netting, which lined the perimeter of the wetlands areas.
There were other restrictions; namely, we couldn’t place a dumpster on site with several hundred feet of the flagged wetlands areas. Since our one-acre lot was barely 140 feet wide, this was a de facto ban on on-site waste disposal. Altogether, these conditions put us about six weeks behind schedule, and added tens of thousands of dollars of unexpected expenses to a project that hinged on thrift.
Steve Ivas: Environmental Consultant
Our first call after receiving the order of conditions from the Conservation Agent was Steve Ivas, an environmental consultant based in Norwell. I would highly recommend Steve to anyone contemplating land development in the South Shore of Massachusetts, and I will happily provide his contact information to anyone interested in retaining his services. Steve kept a bad situation from mushrooming out of control. He assisted us in preparing an impact statement, implementing erosion control measures, and surveying the affected areas. He also helped us understand the nature of the wetlands issues itself. He was featured prominently in a segment on the Bob Vila program.
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