Boston — Two Selectmen in Rehoboth, Massachusetts should be investigated for wetlands and other violations by the state Department of Environmental Protection, based on a complaint filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Both town officials are also defendants in a wide-ranging civil rights and tort lawsuit filed by a local developer.
The Selectmen are alleged to have politically manipulated members of the town’s Conservation Commission membership in order to harass a local developer. Ken Foley, a former Vice Chair of the Conservation Commission and current Selectman, succeeded in quashing a notice of violation filed against Christopher Morra, a member of the Rehoboth Board of Selectmen. The cease and desist order was issued to Morra after almost a year of his refusal to cooperate with the Conservation Commission. While that notice was withdrawn, approximately 500 feet of a stream were filled, according to the PEER complaint.
The Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act is implemented by volunteer Conservation Commissions in cities and towns across the state. Since these Commission members are often appointed by local Selectmen, it is not difficult for local officials to fire members who do not do the Selectmen’s bidding. As a result, the Wetlands Protection Act is not being enforced in some municipalities.
“In Massachusetts, Conservation Commissions are the backbone protecting the aquatic health of the Commonwealth,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former wetlands specialist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “In Rehoboth, there appears to have been a breakdown caused by the havoc of hardball politics.”
The lawsuit, filed last week in federal district court, outlines a long series of actions by Morra and his allies to “get” a developer they perceived as a political enemy. Included with the suit is an affidavit by a former member of the Rehoboth Conservation Commission which details how she was pressured to vote against legitimate projects of the targeted developer and was removed from the Commission when she would not go along with the demands.
“Something is rotten in Rehoboth,” added Bennett. “We want environmental protection laws enforced regardless of political faction.”