Town okay's salt marsh restoration, despite Park Board's disapproval

By Angie Hilsman | Jul 17, 2017

Plans to restore the 11.6-acre salt marsh at Round Hill are back on track due to the Select Board's intervention.

The $5.1 million project — which will be paid for without town funds with the exception of staff hours — was derailed in May, after the Parks Department voiced concern that the environmental restoration would damage the beach’s septic system, upset an existing piping plover habitat, and open the beach to larger crowds as a stipulation of government funding.

The Conservation Commission, Board of Health, and the state have already voiced support for the project, which would remove 72,000 cubic yards of sandy material to recreate the marsh, restore vegetation, and replace a now non-functioning culvert to provide necessary tidal flow. The marsh was filled in by the wealthy Ned Green in 1928 to create an airport.

The Select Board scheduled a joint meeting for the parties on July 17, but Park Board members were not in attendance.

Environmental Affairs Coordinator Michael O'Reilly — who has been working on the project since the mid-1990s, he said — detailed the project at the meeting. A final draft plan has been composed, which must now be submitted to the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) office before permitting can begin. The MEPA process does not authorize project activities, explained O'Reilly. Rather, it welcomes federal, state, and public input, he said.

"It's a very important process to get concerns out there," said O'Reilly. He said the project plan was due to the MEPA office in April, but O'Reilly received an extension following the Park Board's hesitation. Approaching the new June deadline, the Conservation Commission withdrew from the MEPA process because the Parks Board had not okayed the project, said O'Reilly. He added that MEPA can be restarted at any time, but the timeline is crucial.

O'Reilly addressed the Park Board's concerns in a 170-page response (available at https://town.dartmouth.ma.us). At the meeting, O'Reilly said that not only will the restoration be completely funded by outside entities, but that the project board has also secured $53,000 to repave 1,200 feet of Ray Peck Drive, and is working with the Buzzards Bay Coalition to replace the 40-year-old septic system with one that would limit nitrogen pollution.

"It would be an opportunity for the town to be on the forefront of nitrogen removal," said O'Reilly. Nitrogen pollution can cause algae blooms, fish kills, and eelgrass habitat loss.

Additionally, O'Reilly and his project team have secured money to monitor the shorebirds and beach habitat. Project partners will also put forth $50,000 toward channel relocation, a dredging process that needs to be done approximately every five years. O'Reilly said that money will fund the relocation process for about 50 years out.

Inlet upgrades would also enhance the Meadow Shores Marsh, an additional 70 acres of wetlands, O'Reilly said.

Selectman Shawn McDonald was unhappy with the Parks Board's response. "I'm really ripped about this. The taxpayers don't need to put in a dime, but it's also improvement in an area that really needs it," he said.

"Somebody's entrenching on somebody's fiefdom, and they don't like it. But honestly, I don't care. This [project] is good for the town," he continued.

In conclusion, the Select Board voted to not only permit O'Reilly to move forward with the MEPA process, but it also voted to continue discussions about separating salt marsh and beach ownership between the Conservation Commission and Parks Department. Both are currently under Parks management.

Separating ownership would ensure that federal funding would not impact the Park Department's parking regulations, which currently limit parking to town residents, officials said. O'Reilly insisted that the project's funding would not affect that policy regardless.

O'Reilly also noted that if the two are separated, the project team could not allocate funding to improve the septic system or bring in electricity, as those projects would affect the beach instead of the targeted area.

A new septic system ranges from $25,000 to $40,000. Bringing electricity to the beach will cost around $40,000, officials said.

The project is funded by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Buzzards Bay Trustee Council, and the New Bedford Harbor Trustee Council.

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