Lake Nippenicket: Bridgewater Citizens Achieve Victories
Massachusetts Agencies and Bridgewater Town Council Deal Setback to Claremont Proposal; Significant Victory For The Commons of Southeastern Massachusetts
( Lake Nippenicket, in Bridgewater; photo credit — John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons. )
(BRIDGEWATER) — In what is regarded by advocates as a significant victory for the Commons of southeastern Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act Office (MEPA), a division of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA), rejected the draft environmental report from Claremont Companies, a group of southeastern Massachusetts real estate developers, for a massive new development on the shores of Lake Nippenicket in Bridgewater.
The proposed development sits at the heart of the Hockomock Swamp, the largest freshwater wetland in Massachusetts and a state-designated Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC).
“Pursuant to … the MEPA regulations, I hereby determine that the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) submitted on this project does not adequately and properly comply with the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act … and with its implementing regulations …, and therefore requires the filing of a Supplemental DEIR (SDEIR),” wrote Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Rebecca L. Tepper, in a decision handed down on Jan. 30th, 2023.
“Specifically, I find that further analysis is required to satisfy the MEPA requirement that the project’s environmental impacts and mitigation measures have been adequately analyzed prior to the close of MEPA review,” said Secretary Tepper, a member of the new administration of Gov. Maura Healey.
“In particular, the Proponent should provide additional discussion and analysis to evaluate the project’s impacts with regard to traffic, land alteration and impervious area, greenhouse gas emissions, adaptation and resiliency, and cultural resources. The SDEIR should provide further alternatives to avoid or minimize impacts to the Hockomock Swamp Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC),” wrote Sec. Tepper.
The decision was welcomed by local residents and environmental advocates. The Lake Nippenicket Action Focus Team, a grassroots organization of Bridgewater residents and concerned citizens, praised the decision and the popular mobilization that helped bring it about.
“The Lake Nippenicket Action Focus Team (LNAFT) was encouraged to learn MEPA's determination on the Lakeshore Center Phase 4 Draft Environmental Impact Report. The public comments made by so many advocates and organizations who want to preserve and protect Lake Nippenicket and its surrounding natural resources within the Hockomock Swamp Area of Critical Environmental Concern were impactful. LNAFT will continue to review further state and local developments regarding the project and share this information on our website, lnaft.org,” the group stated.
Procedural History, and Layers of Jurisdiction
The decision by Sec. Tepper laid out the extensive procedural history behind the project. Including projects that were abandoned or never constructed, at least 13 applications or notices were made to the EOEEA or its predecessor agencies prior to the December, 2022, draft environmental impact report on behalf of Claremont. Starting nearly four decades ago, documents were filed by development interests, according to Tepper’s decision, in October, 1983; May, 1989; January, 1990; December 1990; August, 1997; June, 1998; January, 1999; January, 2000; January, 2001; May, 2007; August, 2013; December, 2017; and in June, 2018.
The project is overlain by layers of jurisdiction, each of which, it ought to be noted, afford opportunities for those who wish to note the ways in which the project is both deleterious, and contrary to the letter and the spirit of relevant regulations and statutes, to express their views.
The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs has jurisdiction, said Tepper, “because [the proposal] requires Agency Action and will create ten or more acres of impervious area, generate 3,000 or more new adt [average daily trips] on roadways providing access to a single location, and construct 1,000 or more new parking spaces at a single location,” wrote Sec. Tepper.
In addition, she said, the project meets several other tests for EOEEA jurisdiction, such as the direct alteration of more than 25 acres, the addition of more than 100,000 gallons per day in sewage discharge, and any kind of development within an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC).
However, the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs is far from the only part of this jurisdictional thicket, according to Sec. Tepper.
“The project requires an Order of Conditions from the Bridgewater Conservation Commission (and, on appeal only, a Superseding Order of Conditions from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP)), review by the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) pursuant to M.G.L. c. 9, §§ 26-27C (and implementing regulations at 950 CMR 71.00) and a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Construction General Permit (CGP) from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The project also requires numerous permits and zoning amendments/variances from local boards and commissions including the Bridgewater Town Council, Bridgewater Zoning Board of Appeals, and Bridgewater Planning Board,” she wrote.
Significance of the Hockomock Swamp; Groundswell of Public Comment
The EOEEA pointed to the unique importance of the Hockomock Swamp, and of its Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) designation.
“...[T]he entirety of the project site is located within the Hockomock Swamp ACEC….wetland resource areas included in the ACEC [are] significant to the protection of groundwater supply and public and private water supplies, the prevention of pollution, flood control, the prevention of storm damage, the protection of fisheries, and the protection of wildlife habitat,” wrote Sec. Tepper.
“The Hockomock Swamp is the largest vegetated freshwater wetland area in Massachusetts. Further description of the extensive system of surface waters, wetlands, floodplains, and high-yield aquifers included in the Hockomock Swamp ACEC includes Lake Nippenicket as one of these resources. The entirety of the project site is also mapped as a Zone II Approved Wellhead Protection Area by MassDEP,” she noted.
( The Hockomock Swamp, with Lake Nippenicket at the center-bottom of the image; photo credit — Google Earth. )
The EOEEA expressed concerns regarding the effects of the project on the Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC).
“The project will alter an additional 27.85 acres of ACEC and create 12.74 acres of new impervious area within the ACEC. Impacts to the ACEC and Zone II wellhead [protection] area will include stormwater runoff from new impervious surfaces. Extensive clearing, grading and increased impervious surface proposed in the ACEC, and increased discharges of runoff to the ACEC, may result in impacts and long-term effects on the wetlands and streams in the ACEC,” said Tepper.
The historical resources of the region have yet to be adequately and fully described. According to Bridgewater Town Historian David Moore. Mr. Moore, in a February 5th, 2023, edition of Buzz Around Bridgewater, a site proximate to the Park and Ride facility in Bridgewater cries out for further investigation. The site was neither a root cellar nor a burial site, and deserves further examination, he said.
"…[I]n my opinion, the Bridgewater structure is thought-provoking and was not built to store potatoes or bodies and should be documented,” said Mr. Moore.
The significant public comment, and indeed, outcry and urgent concern, on the Claremont proposal was remarked upon by Sec. Tepper.
“I received numerous comments on the DEIR [Draft Environmental Impact Report] from the abutters, residents of Bridgewater, and other interested parties citing significant concerns regarding impacts to the ACEC from the proposed project, particularly in light of the important resources the ACEC provides to protect historical, cultural, and scenic values, fish/wildlife habitat and other natural resources, and the area’s groundwater supply and public and private water supplies,” she wrote.
“Many of the comments specifically reference opposition to the proposed restaurant on the Northern Lot which is directly adjacent to Lake Nippenicket. Comments from the Bridgewater Open Space Committee on the ENF [Environmental Notification Form] indicated that elements of the project are inconsistent with the 2017 Bridgewater Open Space Plan and the ACEC designation,” said Sec. Tepper.
The Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Report [SDEIR] should contain substantive responses to the comments made, said Sec. Tepper.
”The SDEIR should contain a copy of this Certificate and a copy of each comment letter received. It should include a comprehensive response to comments on the DEIR that specifically address each issue raised in the comment letter,” she wrote.
The Bridgewater Town Council: Public Comment; Zoning Change Tabled
As part of its proposal, Claremont needs to obtain a change in Bridgewater’s zoning ordinances.This question came before the Town Council on the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 24th, 2023, where Claremont was dealt a further blow when the Council voted to table the proposed zoning changes.
The meeting was well attended by concerned members of the public, many of whom spoke during the periods devoted to public comment.
Sam Baumgarten, of Bridgewater, spoke eloquently on the issues raised.
“Like others who are here tonight, I’m here to comment on the Claremont proposal for further development around the Nip, with tonight’s zoning change request being the opening salvo, so to speak, in getting their proposal moving,” said Mr. Baumgarten.
“I strongly urge the Council to reject this amendment, whether tonight or at a future meeting; and more generally, to reject further requests for zoning changes without a significant reduction in the size and scope of the proposed development, and a more detailed response to the questions and concerns that will be raised by my fellow Townspeople, especially those the Lake Nip Action Focus Team — some of whom, bless them, have read every page of the proposal,” he continued.
( Sam Baumgarten addresses the Bridgewater Town Council; photo credit — the Town of Bridgewater. )
Mr. Baumgarten described the purposes of the ACEC program, and argued that they stand contrary to the Claremont proposal.
“The overall proposal by Claremont, starting with tonight’s ordinance, rather than ‘preserving, restoring, and enhancing’ critical environmental resources, will, in fact, diminish and harm those resources….There will be harm to wetlands, wildlife, trees, and historical areas,” he said.
“Further, the need for numerous zoning changes and variances is basically an attack on the structures of the Town that we have in place to protect the environment. We have developmental restrictions in place for good reason,” averred Mr. Baumgarten.
Mr. Baumgarten pointed to the grave environmental crisis that has engulfed the world, and argued that here, too, concerned citizens and public officials alike must stand in defense of our common resources and community values.
“We — meaning. all of us human beings — are living through an era of severe environmental degradation, and the consequential deleterious climate changes. The battle is forever: money and profits vs. the environment and saving the planet. Frankly, it’s time to save this small part of the planet, and demand that the big corporation find another, less harmful way to improve its bottom line. The Town Council, along with other relevant Town Boards, needs to take a stand and say: no more, not here,” said Mr. Baumgarten.
Townspeople noted that the proposal would do little to nothing to provide the actually-affordable housing that is needed in the Town and in the region.
The Town Council ultimately voted 4-3 to table the motion that would have changed Bridgewater’s zoning ordinances to set the stage for Claremont to proceed. Consideration of a motion that is tabled is suspended.
( The Bridgewater Town Council; photo credit — Town of Bridgewater. )
Council President and District 3 Councillor Fred Chase, Council Vice President and District 1 Councillor Erik Moore, District 2 Councillor Mark Linde, and Councillor-at-Large Bradford McKinnon voted in favor of tabling the motion to change the zoning ordinances.
Councillor-at-Large Dennis Gallagher, Councillor-at-Large Kevin Perry, and Councillor-at-Large William Wood voted to oppose tabling the motion.
Councillor-at-Large Shawn George recused himself, and Councillor-at-Large Susan Robinson was absent.
The zoning change was therefore tabled.
The Plymouth County Observer’s View: Citizen Engagement Produces Victories
This publication was founded, in part, to examine the critical threats to the commons — the resources of forest and field, streams and ponds and the sea, and beyond — that undergird the common life of our region. To put it plainly, and contrary to the short-sighted, self-dealing, and avaricious mentality that would pave every square inch between Boston and Buzzards Bay in pursuit of profit, we cannot have an economy if we lack water. Our economic systems are underlain by physical ones. This fundamental truth was demonstrated again by the recent controversy in Bridgewater.
In this instance, we are very pleased indeed to see that citizen engagement, democratic organizing, and public comment are working as they ought to, moving our governments closer to a consideration of the popular will and the general welfare, as opposed to familiarity with, and friendliness toward, those corporate development interests which seek to realize even further private profit from the enclosure of public goods.
This fight is far from over, but these two victories are significant, and hopefully presage greater things to come.
The People of Bridgewater are to be congratulated upon — and indeed, thanked for — these excellent victories in defense of our common waters and lands.
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Bridgewater’s municipal government is something of a hybrid; on the one hand, the Town retains the name the “Town of Bridgewater,” and lacks a mayor; on the other hand, the Town lacks a Town Meeting, the legislative body in most New England Towns (either Open Town Meetings, as in Duxbury, Carver, Wareham, and other smaller towns; or a representative Town Meeting, as in larger towns like Plymouth), and its legislative branch is the Town Council.
Excellent news. Good job Bridgewater!
Another excellent in-depth article sir. MassDEP, EEA & other bureaucratic state agencies, have been hopefully put on notice that they work for us and we pay their salaries. It's a shame that citizens have to go to so much effort just to get these agencies to actually do their jobs and abide & enforce the laws as written. Law's adopted to protect the ever dwindling natural resources of the Commonwealth for the benefit it's citizens, not for developers or other private for profit entities that do not derive their livelihood from these resources.