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Vote on Middleborough wetlands bylaw is reversed

The tortuous history of a wetlands protection bylaw for Middleborough took another turn last week, when three of the five selectmen suddenly withdrew their support for a proposal that will appear on Monday’s Special Town Meeting warrant.

In reversing a stance they took just weeks ago, board chairman Stephen J. McKinnon, Ben Quelle, and John Knowlton said the changes proposed by the town’s Conservation Commission seem unnecessary, and could cause more harm than good. But they did not explain why they changed their positions.

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The 3-2 vote not to support the proposal was taken last Monday at a sparsely attended selectmen’s meeting that also deferred a decision on whether to ban synthetic marijuana products.

The wetlands vote did not remove the proposal from the warrant. But it could raise the odds against passage of a measure that has struggled in recent years to build public support.

The bylaw has been presented for approval, then withdrawn, a number of times. The most recent was last year, when town attorney Daniel Murray came up with a lengthy list of concerns that caused the measure to be pulled at the last minute from the annual Town Meeting warrant for more work.

Since then, conservation commissioners have worked to answer questions and amend language, officials said.

At Monday’s meeting, only two residents stood up to express their opinions on the proposal, which would give the Conservation Commission more control over decisions to protect sensitive wetlands and adjoining areas in town, and impose fines of up to $300 a day for noncompliance.

Businessman and former selectman Neil D. Rosenthal, an adamant opponent of the plan, said the state’s Wetlands Protection Act, which is imposed locally through the Conservation Commission, already offers the town more than enough protection in handling local wetlands and other conservation issues.

Rosenthal said he sees no need to add another layer of enforcement to the current system and added the change would only harm residents by, among other things, requiring them to foot the bill for independent reviews of their plans.

Further, he said, regulations needed to carry out the bylaw are as yet unwritten, another cause for concern.

“It curtails people from using their own land,’’ Rosenthal said. “We will have slower growth, or no growth. I don’t think Middleborough will survive if it doesn’t grow.’’

School Committee member Brian Giovanoni, who said he likes the idea of local control, urged selectmen to stand firm.

“This has been on the back burner long enough,’’ he said.

Selectwoman Leilani Dalpe and board vice chairman Allin Frawley agreed and voted to recommend the wetlands proposal on the Town Meeting warrant.

Frawley strongly objected to the idea of taking a vote of no support. What warranted such a change of heart, he asked, since no new information had been raised. He said fairness decreed that conservation staffers should have the chance to speak. But with none in attendance, he and Dalpe were outvoted.

“It seems like it’s not necessary,’’ Knowlton said of the proposal, followed by Quelle, who asked his fellow board members: “What hole is this plugging?”

McKinnon was the most emphatic, explaining that his land is surrounded on two sides by wetlands. If the bylaw was enacted, he said, he would not be able to so much as cut down a tree without town approval.

Town Manager Charles Cristello urged the board to go forward as planned, despite what at times was a heated argument, and put the warrant article before voters.

“Then, you can see where it stands,’’ Cristello said. “It wouldn’t be fair to postpone it now.”

Patricia Cannady, the town’s conservation agent, preferred not to comment on the selectmen’s vote. She said officials in her department had not had a chance to discuss the turn of events and planned to meet later in the week to address it.

Selectmen also plan to meet briefly on Monday before the Special Town Meeting, which convenes at 7 p.m. at the high school.

Among the topics of discussion at that time is a proposal by Frawley to prohibit synthetic marijuana products in town.

Frawley has targeted treated herbal products, billed as incense or potpourri, that have become a popular high among teens and young adults when smoked.

Declaring a public health emergency, and urging a boycott of any store that sells the products going by names like Scooby Snax, Frawley said the packaging, adorned with familiar, colorful cartoon characters like a cross-eyed dog, is particularly abhorrent, marketed specifically to children.

During a hearing on the matter last week, health agent Jeanne Spalding released a proposed ordinance she drafted, based on a similar ban recently passed in Taunton. She also provided information from North Attleborough, which is considering similar steps.

Frawley last Monday urged selectmen to pass the regulation that would be enforced through the health and police departments, but McKinnon and Cristello called for time to digest the information.

Police Chief Bruce Gates said his officers routinely arrest defendants, under Public Health Law, seeing a range of individuals who are caught doing everything from sniffing fumes from keyboard cleaner to huffing spray paint cans.

“Ultimately, the goal is to take this statewide,’’ Gates said of the local regulation. “But I’m not opposed to doing something locally if it’s quicker.”

Reach Michele Morgan Bolton at michelebolton@live.com.
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