Definition of 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 wetland plants common in Freetown are these:

  • skunk cabbage
  • high bush blueberry
  • purple loosestrife
  • sensitive fern
  • sweet pepperbush

To find out whether land is wetland, you can get help from the Conservation Commission. They will be glad to help you determine what land is wetland and advise you on how to proceed.

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. Freetown maintains a good set of federal floodplain contour maps. These can help to locate places on your property that may be subject to flooding. The Conservation Commission personnel can help you read them. (For an exact determination, a survey prepared by a licensed land surveyor is required.)

The small rivulet that only flows intermittently during rains may technically be a wetland. So are the banks of a brook, which may be subject to erosion, though they themselves are not wet. The puddle that forms in the wheel ruts in your dirt driveway on high ground is not a wetland. Neither is the blueberry patch you planted on top of a hill.

What is and is not allowed in a wetland

The general rule for wetlands is "no alteration". Our yards may be high-maintenance, with lawns that need frequent cutting and hedges that need pruning. With wetlands, the approach is hands-off.

In a wetland, the aim is to maintain the healthy functioning of plant and wildlife communities. Disturbing the soil (so that it may erode), dumping grass clippings, brush, and leaves (which smother plants), and clearing natural vegetation are prohibited. Putting up buildings is not allowed. In a floodplain, the aim is to maintain the ability of the land to receive and hold flood waters, so filling is prohibited without a permit from the Conservation Commission. It is also bad practice to store materials in a floodplain: in a flood, they are apt to be swept away, at a loss to their owner and with potential damage to water quality and downstream property.

The Conservation Commission has the authority to regulate activities in wetlands. It also has jurisdiction in the "buffer zone" of upland that is within 100 feet of the border of the wetland resource area. The buffer zone gives the Commission the ability to require that steps be taken to minimize the threat of adverse wetland impacts when construction on the upland takes place.

If the buffer zone activity you plan is relatively minor and will not result in damage or alteration to the wetland resource area -- cutting a tree or installing a fence near the wetland border -- you need only to contact the Conservation Commission at Town Hall. They can look over the planned work and will likely be able to issue an approval in the form of a letter, with little delay.

If your activity is more extensive -- installing an addition in the buffer zone, installing a driveway at the edge of a wetland -- you will need to follow a more formal procedure that can involve:

  • hiring a surveyor, an engineer, or, perhaps, a botanist;
  • filing a Request for Determination of Applicability (of wetland or flood plain regulations);
  • filing a Notice of Intent; and
  • appearing (in person or through a representative) before the Commission at a public meeting.
  • The Commission may issue an Order of Conditions that spells out procedures during construction.
  • Once work is completed in accordance with the terms of the Order, you apply for and receive a Certificate of Compliance.
  • These last two documents are filed in public records at the Bristol County Registry of Deeds in Fall River.
  • In the event of disagreement with a finding of the Commission under the Wetlands Protection Act, appeal is available to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Though regulations prohibit filling and other activity in a wetlands resource area, some flexibility is available in unusual circumstances, subject to stringent requirements. Driveways, for instance, can be allowed through wetlands or floodplains where no other legal access to an owner's upland is available. In such cases, the project design must be environmentally sensitive, and compensatory flood storage and wetland replacement are required so that no net loss of either of these resource areas occurs.