Boston — The ability of citizen Conservation Commissions to protect Massachusetts wetlands goes on trial in this small Buzzards Bay community, according to court filings released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). At issue is the independence of Conservation Commissioners throughout the Commonwealth to do their jobs without political obstruction.
The small town of Westport, Massachusetts is bucolic and picturesque – so much so that the demand for more development threatens to change the town’s character. Approximately thirty miles southeast of Providence and sixty miles south of Boston, Westport is becoming a growing bedroom community.
Much of the undeveloped land in Westport is classified as protected wetlands. Massachusetts has one of the strongest wetlands protection laws in the country and a unique enforcement institution: the municipal Conservation Commission. All 351 towns and cities in the Commonwealth have Conservation Commissions, part-time, appointed, volunteer citizens charged with implementing the state Wetlands Protection Act.
After a pro-environment majority emerged on the Conservation Commission, a few complaints came to Town Hall and the Westport Selectmen, the local governing council. The Selectmen reacted by driving out the Conservation Agent, the town’s sole environmental enforcement employee, and then voting to dissolve the Conservation Commission. This illegal vote was quickly rescinded, and replaced with a vote to investigate any wrongdoing on behalf of the Commission and its agent. Seven months later, no such evidence has been educed.
In response, four of the seven members of the Conservation Commission have filed a complaint in Massachusetts District Court alleging malicious interference with the Commission’s enforcement of wetlands protections and free speech rights. PEER is joining the suit not only to protect the resources of Westport but also to safeguard the role of Conservation Commissions throughout Massachusetts.
“The attempt at summary dismissal and the continued investigation of these public servants threatens the ability of citizen volunteers to defend natural resources within their communities,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett. “Our job at PEER is to support those who enforce resource protection laws.”
PEER has established a legal fund for the four commissioners (the “Westport Four”) who are bringing suit and set up a web center where supporters can make donations online to pay legal expenses for the upcoming trial. Philip N. Beauregard, an experienced civil rights attorney from the Beauregard, Burke & Franco (New Bedford, MA) law firm, is lead counsel in the case.
“The Westport Selectmen have already spent thousands of tax dollars in their campaign to drive out the Conservation Agent and expel the Commissioners, so we thought that it was only fair for taxpayers to make a choice about where they wanted their money to go,” added Bennett, a former lawyer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Every dollar donated will go to the costs of waging this battle.”