Presenting their cases: Officials hear wetlands bylaw, Emerson Umbrella requests

The proposed wetlands bylaw and long-term lease for the Emerson Umbrella dominated the public hearing on non-financial, non-school and non-zoning articles for 2009 annual Town Meeting Monday.

Carrie Flood, executive director of the Emerson Umbrella Center for the Arts, presented Article 35, which seeks authorization for the town manager to enter into long-term lease for the former Emerson High School building allowing the continued use of that facility as a center for artists and art programs.

Flood said the Umbrella has invested more than $650,000 in the building over the past 24 years. That total will exceed $1 million by the time work currently under way is completed, she said.

She said a feasibility study has identified millions of dollars worth of needs in heating, ventilation, electrical, plumbing and accessibility, among others, that must be attended to for the building to remain inhabitable. To pay for the necessary work, the Umbrella would seek Community Preservation Act funding, state or federal funding and solicit donations, Flood said.

Questions and comments offered by the audience touched on length of the lease, terms and conditions of the lease and the costs associated with the renovations.

“I don’t think the town should be presented with an article for a long-term lease without any idea of the maximum term of the lease,” resident Gordon Bell said, adding that such a lease could be up to 99 years.

When the subject of a long-term lease was brought up last fall, the Umbrella was seeking upwards of 30 years, while the selectmen thought 20 years would be a better option. On Monday night, Selectman Jeffrey Wieand asked Flood whether she thought 20 years would still be sufficient.

“Could be. We’d rather 30. We would be OK with 99 too,” Flood said.

Wieand also asked Flood if she was still sure the Umbrella could raise the necessary funds. She said, “It’s a challenge right now in this climate,” but that’s what they are aspiring to do.

Mark Howell, a Finance Committee member speaking of his own accord, asked whether there would be any terms or conditions tying the lease to the capital improvements. Town Manager Chris Whelan said such terms could be outlined.

Resident Kate Carr asked how long Flood thought the fundraising would take, and what kind of benchmarks would be in place. Flood said there are some things they want to spend money on right away, but they’re planning on procuring funds over about three years.

“We can’t shut the building down for two years and gut it and get everything done. Things will be moved around necessarily,” Flood said, adding that they will work with the town manager and selectmen to figure out triggers and benchmarks.

Wetlands bylaw

Natural Resources Commission Chairman Al Easterday presented an overviewof the controversial wetlands bylaw, with facts to consider, elements of the bylaw, reasons for it and benefits of it.

He said the NRC believes the bylaw, Article 43, would offer the town “a modest bylaw by focusing on three general areas.”

Easterday’s outline said the bylaw would codify the no-disturb zone, implement a 100-foot buffer zone and provide the ability to fine for infractions; provided reasons for it such as reinforcing general state regulations and that local bylaws present a larger deterrent against infractions, and listed benefits like flood control and protecting drinking water, wildlife habitats and other natural resources.

He said all exemptions covered under the state’s Wetlands Protection Act are included in the bylaw. The language of the bylaw has been revised since November, and a final draft should be posted by the end of the week, he said.

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“There have been significant changes to the language of the bylaw, but none that changed its intent,” Easterday said, noting that the NRC removed language some considered to be inflammatory.

If Article 43 passes, the Planning Board will move Article 44, which seeks to amend accordingly the Wetland Conservancy District zoning bylaw.

 Wieand asked if the bylaw in the warrant has been modified extensively. Easterday said “not extensively. … It still fits within the four corners” of the original. He also noted some of the changes made it into the warrant.

Charlie Blair, a Finance Committee member speaking for himself, asked whether the changes in regulations would require another Town Meeting approval if the bylaw passes.

Easterday said the bylaw is presented in a way that the NRC would hold a public hearing process and dialogue with other boards, committees and interested citizens to develop the regulations.

Blair said, “I would hope that that would be changed and at least Town Meeting would have a vote.”

Nicholas Pappas was concerned with a number of aspects of the proposed bylaw, including the lack of an analysis of the costs homeowners would incur due to the permitting process required by the bylaw, the lack of provisions for hardship.

Gordon Bell also had numerous concerns, and said it would be “unwise to adopt Article 43” because “it doesn’t just have a 25-foot buffer and some penalties.”

Bell said the bylaw is much more vague than state law, and gives the NRC a lot of room for interpretation. While he said the current NRC crop is a reasonable bunch, he pointed out that that has not always been the case and there is no guarantee about future commissions.

Further, Bell said, the enforcement issues are cloudy, as the NRC could take civil or criminal court action, the selectmen could choose to take civil action or police could become involved with criminal actions.

“The police could choose to enforce the wetlands bylaw under criminal law,” Bell said. “That’s a really interesting step to me.”

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