Boston — The ability of citizen Conservation Commissions to protect Massachusetts wetlands free from political interference was vindicated by a lawsuit settlement finalized today, according to court filings released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The settlement on behalf of members of the Westport Conservation Commission reverses an attempt by Town Selectmen to dissolve the Commission in order to reverse restrictions on development in the fast-growing community located near both Providence and Boston.
In January 2008, four of the seven members of the Conservation Commission (called “the Westport Four”) filed a complaint in Massachusetts District Court alleging malicious interference with the Commission’s enforcement of wetlands protections and free speech rights. Philip N. Beauregard, of the New Bedford firm of Beauregard, Burke & Franco handled the litigation.
The Westport Selectman signed the settlement on May 26, 2009 and it became final today. Under its terms, the Town of Westport paid the plaintiffs $41,700 in reimbursement of legal fees. In addition, the Board of Selectmen –
- Acknowledged that its vote to dissolve and reconstitute the Conservation Commission as a whole was illegal and that Conservation Commission members may be removed only for cause;
- Conceded that the Board of Selectmen agreed they do not have any supervisory or managerial authority over personnel appointed by the Conservation Commission; and.
- Agreed that they will not interfere with the Commission in its discharge of its responsibility to enforce the state Wetlands Protection Act.
“This is a clear message to municipal officials across Massachusetts that Conservation Commission members may carry out their responsibilities under the Wetlands Protection Act without retaliation,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, an attorney formerly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who assisted the Westport Four. “Political obstruction of environmental enforcement has no place in our Commonwealth.”
The Conservation Commission institution is unique to Massachusetts. All 351 towns and cities in the Commonwealth have Conservation Commissions, part-time, appointed, volunteer citizens charged with implementing the state Wetlands Protection Act. As a result, Massachusetts has one of the strongest wetlands protection laws in the country.
“Every day, Massachusetts loses, on average, 40 acres of open spaces, included wetlands,” Bennett added. “We will never win the war against sprawl unless our land use laws are faithfully enforced – and that is what this case was about.”