By the 1950s there was growing awareness in Massachusetts of the need to retain some of our lands in their natural
condition and to keep our waters clean for wildlife, fisheries and drinking water. At the local level this had led to the
formation of town forest committees, park commissions, playground commissions, and recreation commissions.
Sportsmen’s clubs, garden clubs, nature associations and charitable foundations had already done a great deal to
conserve our vanishing natural resources.
But before communities could acquire areas for passive use rather than active recreational development, two things
• Creation of a specific municipal conservation agency, and
• Recognition of the preservation of open space as a valid municipal purpose for which money could be
In 1957 Representative John Dolan of Ipswich filed a bill in the Legislature that became the Conservation Commission Act (G.L. Ch. 40 §8C). This landmark law (HB §1.1.2) enabled Massachusetts municipalities to establish Commissions through a vote of each local legislative body (town meeting or city council).
The Town of Ipswich established the first Conservation Commission in 1958. Its initial act was to purchase salt
marshes to preserve “as is.” By the end of that year, eleven more towns had formed Commissions. Over the next three decades the movement grew. Since Mt. Washington acted in the mid-1980s, every city and town in the Commonwealth
has had a Conservation Commission. Conservation Commissions today embody the effort to unite citizens and government officials in the common mission of land, water and biological resource protection. The way Commissions fit into the broader picture of environmental protection in Massachusetts, and the principal events shaping Commissions’ work are shown in Figure 1D.
The establishment of Conservation Commissions in Massachusetts was the beginning of a broader movement of municipal environmental agencies and statewide associations representing and supporting them. Each of the New England states now has local conservation commissions, and most have active statewide associations. New Jersey has local environmental commissions. Commissions in other states vary in their land and water resource protection authority. Contact information is in Appendix B. MACC was the first, and remains the largest and most active statewide association of municipal Conservation Commissions.
Wetlands Filing Fees
Conservation Commissions are authorized by the Wetlands Protection Act and 310 CMR 4.00 to collect and retain filing fees for permit and certain other applications to offset the costs of administering the Wetlands Protection Act. These filing fees can be used for all Wetlands Protection Act purposes, including staff time spent on the Act, and not merely for case-by-case review. Thus this account does augment the Commission’s budget, so long as its use is properly limited. Filing fees collected under the Wetlands Protection Act must be set aside in a special account that does not revert to the general fund and cannot be voted to other use. It is entirely illegal for filing fee money collected under the Act to be transferred to the general fund. However, interest accrued does go to the general fund. Surplus from a filing fee stays in the account for later use unless the applicant successfully appeals the fee when filing the Notice of Intent. Filing fee requirements are spelled out in Department of Revenue Informational Guideline Release 98-101 (February 1998) (found in HB §184.108.40.206). It is also available online (see Appendix B). Since many communities still transfer filing fees to the general fund, Commissions should educate their municipal officials about the legal requirements, and enlist the help of the Department of Revenue if needed.
Filing fee funds are not automatically handed over to the Commission. Written approval of the mayor, manager, or selectboard is required (Acts of 1997, Ch. 43 §218). The text of this provision is found in HB §19.43. Prior to this 1997 amendment to the Wetlands Protection Act, a city council or town meeting vote was required. Any form of written permission should suffice; the Commission should ask the treasurer what is acceptable before submitting bills. Filing fees are also discussed in HB §12.5.3. A wetlands bylaw/ordinance may also establish a system of filing fees (in addition to those under the Wetlands Protection Act). These funds are best placed in a separate account. They should not be mingled with the Wetlands Protection Act filing fees, because the pay out provisions may be different. Many communities place these funds in a special account, and the annual authorization will permit “rolling over” the accumulated balances. For more on filing fees under wetlands bylaws/ordinances see HB §220.127.116.11. Note that filing fees under a local law are entirely separate from consultant or “design review” fees which may also be established, and from the consultant fees that can be imposed by Commissions with or without a bylaw or ordinance after adopting regulations pursuant to G.L. Ch. 44 §53G. These are addressed below.