Conservation Commission FAQs

What is the Wetlands Protection Act?

The Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act (M.G.L. Chapter 131, Sec. 40) prohibits any filling, excavation or alteration of the land surface, water levels or vegetation in wetlands, floodplains, riverfront areas or other wetland resource areas, regardless of ownership, without a permit from the local Conservation Commission. Regulations for the Act are issued by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) (310 CMR 10.00). The Department of Environmental Protection also issues policy statement and guidance documents for clarification of issues.

The eight interests of the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act which serve to preserve and protect Massachusetts wetlands are: preventing pollution; reducing the effects of potential flooding; storm damage prevention; protecting groundwater supplies; protection of fisheries; protection of land containing shellfish; maintaining habitats for plants and wildlife; and protecting public and private water supplies.

The Act gives local communities the authority to determine which Resource Areas within its jurisdiction are protected, to regulate work in these areas, and to enforce the regulations. The performance standards under the Act state that there may be no destruction or impairment of bordering vegetated wetland (BVW) areas: alteration of up to 5,000 square feet may be permitted at the Commission's discretion provided the area is properly replicated.


What are Wetlands?

Wetlands are low-lying areas where water tends to collect and saturate the ground, either year-round or for long periods. Wetlands are most easily identified by vegetation composition, plants and animals that thrive in wet conditions. There are wetlands in every community and they take many forms: banks, beaches, bogs, dunes, marshes, ponds rivers, salt marshes, streams, tidal pools and wet meadows.


What are protected Resource Areas?

The protected resource areas include rivers, streams, brooks, ponds, lakes, wetlands, banks, floodplains, and vernal pools. Protection extends 100 feet from the edge of the wetlands, 100 feet from vernal pools, and 200 feet from rivers and most brooks and streams.

It is illegal for anyone in to dredge, fill, modify or alter any of these resource areas without first filing for and receiving a permit. Anyone who may want to work within 100 feet of a wetland or within 200 feet of a brook, stream or river and who plans to build, grade, clear, apply herbicides or do any work which could alter the resource area must contact the Conservation Commission before doing so.


Why protect wetlands?

Wetlands, especially those at the headwaters and along the main branch of rivers and streams, store large amounts of water during rainy periods. This storage of flood waters reduces peak flows downstream, thereby reducing potential flood damage to downstream property owners. When wetlands and floodplains are filled and the flood storage capacity is lost, property, homes and businesses down stream, which were never flooded before may become subject to flooding. To date, Massachusetts has lost nearly a third of its original natural wetlands acreage to agricultural, commercial, and residential development. The cost of this loss is may include degraded water quality; increased storm damage; depleted fish and wildlife and plant populations.


How do I know what is a wetland?

Some wetlands are easy to identify. A pond is not land, but it is wet, and so it is a wetland. So is a vernal pool -- a low place that fills with water in the Spring but is dry at the surface through the rest of the seasons. So is land overgrown with the kind of plants we commonly find on wet ground -- cattails, for instance. Sometimes wetlands are defined by their hydrology or soils. More often, they are defined by their plant communities: where species that commonly occur in wetland are in the majority, that place is most likely a wetland. Red maple is one indicator. Other common wetland plants are :
skunk cabbage
high bush blueberry
purple loosestrife
sensitive fern
sweet pepperbush

To find out whether a particular site is classified as a wetland, you can get help from the Conservation Commission. Sometimes the identification of affected land becomes technical. Land that may appear to be dry may, in fact, be in a floodplain. When a peak storm arrives, that land may be under water. Floodplains are identified by elevation. The Commission maintains a set of floodplain maps; these can help you locate places on your property that may be subject to flooding. For an exact determination, a survey prepared by a licensed land surveyor is required.


What Does the Commission Do?

The purpose of the Conservation Commission is to protect Wrentham’s wetland resource areas in accordance with the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act (WPA) and the Wrentham Wetlands ByLaw and supporting regulations. The Commission is the permitting authority specifically charged with the protection of wetland resource areas. The primary activity of the Commission is the administration of the State Wetlands Protection Act (WPA) (M.G.L. Chapter 131, Sec. 40). The Commission also engages in planning, helping to acquire and manage open space.


Why should the Conservation Commission be allowed to decide what a private owner may do with wetlands on his own property?

In order to protect the rights of other private property owners who may be adversely affected, activities on private property which may pollute or damage wetland resources and impact communities elsewhere are often regulated by local, state or federal government in the interests of the general public.


How can some of these houses be allowed to be built on lots that are mostly wetlands?

The approval of the Conservation Commission is not the only requirement for building in the Town of Wrentham. Their approval just relates to Resource Areas. If a lot has the required “upland” or dry area and meets minimum setbacks the property owner is allowed to build. Sometimes variances are required allowing a reduction of these setbacks. These concerns are handled by the Zoning Board. Once all of these items have been met the Building Department will issue a building permit and the work is allowed to proceed.


When Should You Consult the Commission?

Anytime you plan to work within the 100-foot buffer zone of a Resource Area, or within the 200-foot buffer zone of any waterway, you must obtain the necessary permits from the Commission. When in doubt, our Commission Agent will be happy to consult with you and answer your questions. For detailed information, please contact the office 508-384-5417.


When /Where Does the Commission Meet?

The Commission meets the second & fourth Thursday of the month.  The meetings are held in the Conference Room on the second floor of the Town Hall 79 South Street.  Meetings begin at 7:30 PM.


Who are these people?

The Conservation Commission is made up of Wrentham residents, appointed by the Board of Selectmen. The Agent inspects wetland projects and is hired by the Commission.  


How do I Know if My Project is Regulated?

Contact the Conservation Commission Agent. Regulations issued under the state and local laws contain specific standards which may apply to your particular project. Your project must meet those standards to be approved. An “Abbreviated Notice of Resource Area Delineation” is required for approval of a wetland line on your property.


When the Conservation Commission determines that the Wetlands Protection Act applies to a proposed project, what next?

You may file a “Request for Determination” for small projects in which no alteration of a wetland resource area is proposed. A fee is required payable to the Town.  A public hearing notice must be placed in the Sun Chronicle 5 days before the hearing.

Your project will be heard at a scheduled meeting by the Commission. After the meeting is closed, the Conservation Commission will issue a Detemination of Applicability.

For larger, more complex or sensitive projects you must complete a “Notice of Intent“ form and an engineered plan is often required.  Abutter notification is required as well as a fee payable to both the Town and the DEP.  A public hearing notice must be placed in the Sun Chronicle 5 days before the hearing.

Your project will be heard at a scheduled meeting by the Commission. After the hearing is closed, the Conservation Commission will issue an “Order of Conditions” , detailing how you must proceed with the project. This “Order of Conditions” must then be recorded at the Registry of Deeds. Proof of recording must be presented to the Conservation Commission office prior to the start of your project.


After an applicant has a final Order of Conditions, how much time does the applicant have to finish the work?

Three years. Should work not be completed in that time the applicant may request an extension of up to 3 more years. The request must be presented to the Commission, noting reasons for the extension, before the original Order expires.


The work is completed, now what?

If you filed a Notice of Intent and received an Order of Conditions you need to apply for a Certificate of Compliance. This is required to clear your title at the Registry of Deeds and close your file.  You must fill out Form 8A and include an As-Built Plan and a letter from an Engineer that states your project is in compliance with your Order of Conditions.  A fee is required.  Certificates of Compliance are issued only at Public Meetings and must be recorded at the Registry of Deeds.


What happens when a project is begun without complying with the Act?

The Conservation Commission may issue a “Cease & Desist” Enforcement Order which may include fines. In addition to stopping the work, the landowner may be required to correct the work which has been completed, even if it means putting the land back to its former condition.


What if my neighbor is doing work in or near the wetlands without approval of the Conservation Commission?

If you suspect that work is being done that should first be approved by the Conservation Commission you may call the Office  508-384-5417.   We will then check to see if there are any filings for that property and also check our maps that help determine areas of concern. The Agent may then visit the site and take action as necessary.

For more information please contact the Conservation Commission or the DEP 20 Riverside Dr., Lakeville MA 02347 (508)946-2800.

What Good Are Beavers?   

Most people only become aware of beavers when they are a nuisance, but did you know that biologists classify beavers as a Keystone species? Beaver ponds create wetlands which are among the most biologically productive ecosystems in the world‘. They increase plant, bird2 and wildlife variety3, improve water quality4, and raise salmon and trout populationss. This one species supports hundreds.  How is this possible? By opening the tree canopy, sunlight reaches the water and triggers an explosion of biological activity. Algae and aquatic plants grow in the sun drenched, nutrient rich water. This organic material supports microscopic organisms, which are eaten by a variety of invertebrates. These become food for fish, birds and mammals. An entire food chain is created in a beaver pond.  

While infamous for killing trees, beaver dams actually create diverse habitats. Grasses, sedges, bushes and saplings grow on the perimeter of the pond. These plants provide food and cover for foraging animals.   

Beaver ponds become magnets for a rich variety of wildlife. From important game species like wood duck, mink and otter, to vulnerable anadromous fish like rainbow smelt, steelhead and salmon, biodiversity thrives due to beaver ponds. Beaver dams also protect downstream spawning areas from sedimentation, and create cool, deep pools which increase salmon and trout populations.   

How do dams affect water quality? They actually improve flow and quality6. By functioning as natural sponges that store runoff water and slowly release it, they reduce downstream flooding and erosion. The algae and plants in the pond improve water quality by absorbing dissolved nutrients, processing organic wastes, and detoxifying runoff toxins (e.g. heavy metals, pesticides and fertilizers). These wetlands serve as the “Earth’s Kidneys”.   

Beaver ponds also recharge our drinking water aquifers, stabilize the water table, and better maintain stream flows during droughts. Beavers are even being reintroduced around the country to improve arid lands.   

Beavers are sometimes regarded as pests, but the in truth there isn’t a single species that will better benefit your watershed. Although they can present a challenge, by using flow devices you can control problematic flooding and reap countless environmental rewards. Beavers really are “Worth A Dam”. 

written by Mike Callahan @ Beaver Solutions and Heidi Perryman @ Worth A Dam